He was five and his mother was too sick to be taking care of him and his father was a sailor and was very far away. Mummy showed him on a map once, where his father was, but he forgot the name and the place. He didn’t know his father or think of him much – Bert was only five, after all, and his world was his mummy, London, and the banister between the ground and first floors.
Bert was five and his mother was young, although he didn’t know it at the time. She mended clothes for richer ladies and he jumped from the banister, taught himself to dance and play a trumpet he found in the neighbor’s rubbish, and ran away from home during the day because he was bored and five years old. Mummy was too sick, too sick by far to chase after him, and she despaired when he came home muddy, sooty, chalky, or with holes ripped in the knees of his trousers. His mother might be sick and prone to coughing fits but she was never so sick that she couldn’t shout at him. She was always upset when he came home with soot on his face. “You are a terror,” she scolded, putting him in a tub of lukewarm water and scrubbing furiously at his arms and legs. “Hanging with chimney sweeps all the day in your clean clothes. If they mean to make you a climbing boy. . .!”
But the chimney sweeps would never be so dishonorable. They only taught him how to hold a brush and how to jump off a smokestack onto their shoulders. He gave her coins that they gave him, small though they were, and she kissed his head every night before bed. In mornings he liked to stand on the table in the kitchen and dance until she shouted at him to stop. But she was too sick, too busy, too young to care for him all by herself and it was one day when he got bored and ran out to play in the park that he heard her shout after him, “Oh, I wish I had a nanny!”
On Tuesday next, while he was tap-dancing on the table, there was a knock on the door. He jumped off the table – fell, really, but Mummy didn’t see – and ran to the door. It should have been Mrs Sweets for her mending, but it was a woman instead, a woman with a severe carriage and decidedly unimpressed look on her face. “Bert, I assume?”
He stood with his hand on the door and his mouth open. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“Well,” she said, “Aren’t you going to invite me in? Manners, young man.”
He pulled the door open for her and she walked right past him into the front room. “Ah,” she said. “You must Bert’s mother. You look hardly more than a child yourself.”
“I am twenty years old, thank you,” his mother said stiffly; today was not a good day and she was late with the mending for Mrs Darling besides. Bert shut the front door and brushed past the woman to stand behind the sofa. He looked over his mother's shoulder at the woman, who looked back at him. She looked like she was almost smiling, but didn't think it was appropriate.
“Who,” his mother said, “may I ask, are you?”
“Mary Poppins,” said the woman. “I heard you were looking for a nanny.”
“I wasn’t,” said his mother. She looked confused. “I mean, I do wish – but no, no, there’s no nanny job here. I haven’t any money, it was just a passing thought. Did you hear me call out the door? It was after this one,” she jerked a shoulder back and he put his arms around her neck, “he’s such a bother. I’m sorry to cause you any trouble. There is no nanny job here,” she repeated.
“Hmm,” said Mary Poppins and she looked at Bert and Bert’s mummy for a long while. “I’ll need every second Tuesday off,” she said. “I assume you’ve a spare bedroom?”
“What? No, no. You don't understand,” said Bert’s mother, shaking her head. “I haven’t got any money. Mary Poppins, there’s been a mistake–Bert, show her to the door–”
“No use getting upset over mistakes now,” said Mary Poppins. “Everyone makes mistakes and a busy young women such as yourself always could do with a nanny. I could work for lower wages than I am accustomed to. After all, what one needs is always less than what one wants. Yes, you’re right, that’s exactly what I shall do. You are so very wise. I will still require second Tuesdays off. Tuesdays are very important to me.”
Bert’s mother stared at Mary Poppins, stunned into silence. Bert saw what Mary Poppins had done and he put a hand over his mouth to stop from laughing. Mary Poppins winked at him.
“If it’s settled,” said Mary Poppins, “I should like to shake your hand. One can always learn a lot from a handshake and I want to know exactly the kind of woman that you are. Then Bert can show me to the spare bedroom.”
He ran around the sofa to show her to the stairs. His mother, too surprised to get up from the sofa, held out a hand. “I’m. . .grateful,” she said. Bert grinned. He had never seen his mother so confused. “And you are very. . .good. I don’t know how long I can–”
“Time!” said Mary Poppins. She waved a hand, as if time were a bee too close to her tea. “I will stay until the wind changes, and not a day longer. Come along now, Bert. I see I have my work cut out with you.”
They shook hands. Mary Poppins tried and failed to mask shock at how cold his mother’s hands were, or how hard, or how thin. Mummy pulled her hands away quickly and tucked them in her lap. “Bert, go show Mary Poppins the spare bedroom,” she said.
Bert was halfway up the stairs before he realised Mary Poppins wasn’t following. He turned back to see Mary Poppins looking back at the front room. He jumped down a step to see. His mother was looking back.
“It is very rude to stare, Bert,” said Mary Poppins, turning. He jumped. She hopped onto the banister and slid up past him. He ran after her.
Mary Poppins made rooms brighter by standing in them, made hands warmer by touching them, made Bert sleep by singing to him. She made tea for Mummy. She took Bert to the park, to the zoo, to the market, and to the museum. They walked along the Thames and down the Strand and up the steps of St. Paul’s. He showed her his favorite screevers with pride, but they all knew her name. “Mary Poppins!” said every single one with great cheer. They drew pictures of her, drew flowers for her, and snuck him bits of chalk when she wasn’t looking.
He ran away still. It was his nature. He couldn’t run away during the day anymore, so he ran away at night when Mummy was sound asleep and didn’t notice to notice the bed shift as he rolled off. He was very quiet and could scale up the drainpipe without so much as a scrape, but Mary Poppins always found him in the end. How, he never knew. He jumped from rooftop to rooftop with the grown chimney sweeps and there she would be, all of a sudden, in front of him, standing straight as chimney and twice as hard when she grabbed his hand. “That is quite enough,” she always said. “A boy your age needs his sleep.” The chimney sweeps ran away from her and she blew at a smoke stack to make some stairs for them to walk down, “the way civilized people walk.” He rather liked to jump though, much preferred it to walking.
Mary Poppins could dance but didn’t like to unless her partner was just as tall. She never danced with Bert, but she was a willing audience and always clapped when he finished a routine. She was always delighted to see him dance. She would not let him dance on the table anymore, but she was quite content to let him dance all over the house. She danced with his mother sometimes, on rainy days and when his mother was well, but more often she’d just sit with Mummy and let him tire himself by climbing on banisters and dancing up and down the steps. He was never bored on a rainy day when Mary Poppins was around, even if she sat all day long with his mother. When he got very antsy, she taught him to whistle, or chirp, or sing. She never minded his trumpet either, and even showed him to clap hands in time.
He liked to explore but he liked it best with Mary Poppins, who did not explore, but knew exactly where to go and exactly what they would find. Mary Poppins knew everything and what she didn’t know, she soon found out. She had a word for everything, even things there were no words for. She knew what words were used in the past, what words to use in the present, and what words would be used in the future. Mary Poppins simply knew and she was never wrong.
But he should have known something was coming when she packed up her bags on morning. “The winds are changing, Bert,” she said. “It’s time for me to go.”
Mary Poppins was practically perfect in every way and he loved her second to his mother. He wept as she scolded him. “I detest soggy goodbyes,” she said. “Stop your crying at once and fetch me my hat stand.”
He did as he was told but he was very unhappy about it and ran away after to hide his face in his mother’s knees. His mother patted his head. “Dear, don’t cry. You’ll be starting school soon. Mary Poppins would be so bored without you.” But her voice cracked at the end. His mother loved Mary Poppins too.
Mary Poppins slid down the banister for the last time, carpet bag in hand. “Oh Bert, you don’t need me anymore,” she said, when she saw him crying again. “You have greater things in store. I should hate to grow dusty and watch you have all the adventures to yourself. No,” she said, “better that I leave now before you forget all about me.”
He shook his head so hard he was dizzy – forget Mary Poppins? Never! She looked at him and shook her head too. “Now Bert, you know it’s true.” She stepped forward and shook Mummy’s hand for the last time. “It's been a pleasure.”
“No,” said Mummy, grasping Mary Poppins’ hand. “No, you, truly, you have. I don’t know what I would have done. You’ve been such a great help.”
“I should hope so,” said Mary Poppins. She squeezed Mummy's hand. “Pity I never got him to speak though.” She frowned at Bert. “You will always be my greatest success and greatest failure,” she decided. “Your manners are impeccable but you’d never open your mouth to say ‘thank you.’” She picked up her carpet bag. “Goodbye, you two. I have had fun with you.”
His mother held him back until the door shut. He wrenched free and ran but when he opened the door, Mary Poppins was gone.
That evening, his father came home, and declared he’d be home for a good long while. The loss of Mary Poppins was not so bad after that.
He was ten and had impeccable manners. Mary Poppins was a distant, warm, memory and he was as much a terror as a gentleman could be. He opened doors for ladies and took off his hat in front of lords and ran at night across rooftops and over chimneys. He wasn’t a real chimney sweep, not yet, but they looked after him just the same, showing him where to buy the best bristles, how to scrape the bricks just right.
Father died a couple years after Mary Poppins had gone away. He died at sea. Mummy was terribly upset by it but made him attend school the following morning anyway. It was a waste and waste of their money and the very next day he stopped going. He had disliked school very much and the loss was easier to bear than the loss of his father. Bert stayed with Mummy instead, running errands for her and running wild in the park. When she didn't need him, she let him go to the park where he learned to make art with the screevers and to play trombone with street musicians. He was going to be a jack-of-all-trades, he announced one morning, though Mummy much preferred he be a merchant or a banker. Mummy was still sick, too sick to have a ten year old boy with too much energy running and jumping and dancing around, but he knew it made her smile when he did. She taught him to sew to calm him down and in her last days he did all her mending. Mrs Sweets never knew the difference. Mrs Darling’s critical eye saw a single mistake on the hem of a nightgown, but forgave his mummy, on account of her illness. Their money went to coal. Medicine, they knew, was of no use now.
His mother died on a Tuesday morning, the same day as his father. She held his hand and sighed at him one last time. When it was all done, he went and sat on the stairs for a long while, growing colder by the hour. When he could stand the chill no longer, he went out into and found the nearest constable. “My mummy is dead,” he said. His voice was so flat and his accent so thick that the constable didn’t believe him at first and it was only after several minutes of Bert repeating himself that the constable could be arsed to come see. Bert found that he could say nothing else when the doctors and detectives and constables and neighbors came.
“My mummy is dead,” he said to them all. “My mummy is dead.”
It was late in the evening before they gave him any thought again. “Where is your father, boy?”
“He died too,” said Bert. “He died at sea when I was seven.” He sat on the stairs in front of them, the same steps he’d sat on earlier in the day. He pressed his hands between his knees and stared at his shoes.
“Haven’t you got any relatives? Grandparents or the like?”
“No,” said Bert. “Never met them, if I did.”
“Poor lad,” said the constable. His shoes were shiny and well-polished. “I suppose he’ll have to go to a boy's home.”
The doctor had scuffed and cracked leather boots. “Don’t know what home will take him at this time of night,” he said. “It’s long past decent.”
“We could take him to the station, but we ain’t got a man to spare to look after him.”
“I’ll take him,” said a firm, clear voice. Her shoes were pink and clean. Bert sat up straight, mouth open in surprise. She frowned at him and he closed his mouth. The doctor and constable stared at her. “And who are you?” asked the constable.
“She's my nanny,” Bert said and he jumped off the stairs to meet her. She held him off with a look and he stood against the wall instead, fingers curled tight against his palms.
“Mary Poppins,” she said to the constable. “I was his nanny many years ago. I heard the news and came at once.”
“Well, Miss Poppins,” said the constable. “If you’re willing. It’s late. Most places don't like to take a kid so late. Looks suspicious.”
“Of course, I’m willing,” said Mary Poppins. “I leave a charge only when they no longer need me. Go, Bert,” she said, waving at him, “go get your things.”
His mother was gone from the bedroom but the site of the bed made him shiver and shake all the same. He packed his cleanest clothing in a bag with his mother’s sewing kit and his pouch with all his chalk and picked up his trumpet. It was cold and he couldn't stop shaking. He stared at the empty bed for a moment and ran down the stairs, stumbling over the last step. The doctor was writing Mary Poppins a note and the constable was folding up his own notebook. Mary Poppins tucked the doctor’s note into the pocket of her coat. “Thank you ever so much,” she said, and the constable and the doctor both tipped their hats at her. She nodded at him. “Are you ready, Bert? I’m afraid we’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”
In the carriage she let him cry, deep, gasping, sobs against her neck. “Bert, Bert,” she said, but that was all she said. He cried until his throat was sore and he couldn’t speak except to say, “Why?”
“You know perfectly well why she died,” said Mary Poppins, holding him back to look at his face. “She was very ill.”
Mary Poppins saying, ‘she died,’ had a finality to it that brought fresh tears to his eyes, but he took a deep breath and shook his head. “No,” he said, “Why did you come?”
“I never leave a charge if they still need me,” she repeated. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed her eyes. “Oh Bert.”
He curled up against her chest and wept. She stroked his hair and said nothing more. The ride was long and he was nearly asleep when he heard Mary Poppins tap on the roof of the carriage and say to the driver, “This will do.”
She squeezed his shoulder. “Come along, Bert. I am not a bed. We have some walking to do.”
He climbed off her and shook himself awake while she gathered her things. The driver helped Mary Poppins out and let Bert jump over the stairs to the ground. He tripped and would have fallen but for the driver grabbing his arm. “My condolences,” said the driver. Mary Poppins nodded at him. She picked up Bert’s bag and started off down a small street. He wanted very much to hold her hand, but he was ten and ten year old boys did not do such things. He hurried along at her side instead, as close as she would let him.
“You’ll be staying with Uncle Albert,” she said. “He will take you to a boy’s home tomorrow morning. He is a patron of a few homes and will know where you’ll best fit in.”
“Why can't I stay with you?” Bert asked.
“Me? Don’t be silly. I’m a nanny, Bert. Mr and Mrs Hart would be very unhappy to find themselves saddled with yet another child. They have quite too many already, although you mustn’t tell them I said that. Five children! It’s wonder I didn’t come sooner.” She stopped in front of a house and pulled out a key. “Now Bert, be very quiet. Uncle Albert will be no help at all in the morning if he’s woken up now. He needs his sleep.”
She shooed him in and shut the door very quietly. It was very dark and Bert could only see the shapes of things in the room ahead of them, misshapen things with dense shadows. He was shivering again. He wrapped his arms around himself to cover it, looking up at Mary Poppins to follow her cue. Mary Poppins snapped her fingers and a candelabrum on the table by the door lit up. She picked it up and led him through a sitting room with too-high ceilings to a small room with low ceilings at the back of the house. “There’s a washroom down the corridor,”she said. “Mind you wash up before you leave tomorrow. No charge of mine will show up to an orphanage dirty and if I know you, there’s soot built up behind your ears.”
He managed a small smile at that, but it hurt too much and he stopped. Mary Poppins shook her head. “Get ready for bed. I'll make you a cup of warm milk.”
He had no idea what to do when she shut the door behind her. The room was cozy enough, he supposed, but it was dark, even with the candelabrum, and it was cold. It was a room that didn’t get used very much. He thought he recognised the mirror on the wall and perhaps the hat stand in the corner as well.
He dressed for bed and climbed under the stiff covers, shivering. Mary Poppins knocked on the door and walked in before he could call out. She handed him the glass of warm milk. “Drink up, Bert. You'll sleep so much better.”
He drank by rote and lay down. She pulled the covers up to his chin. “You mustn’t be afraid,” she said. “Everything has changed for you, but you mustn’t be afraid.”
He nodded. She sat on the side of the bed. Bert wanted to cry and tried hard not to. He asked, voice rough, “will I see you again?”
Mary Poppins looked at him, that same long, calculating look such as he'd seen the first time she’d met him. Eventually she sighed. “Yes, I do believe you will.”
“Good,” he said. He felt safer with Mary Poppins somehow – but then, he always had. The room was warmer now with her in it. “Will you sing to me?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Please,” he said. She made the room warm and she could make him fall asleep too. “Please, Mary Poppins.”
“Very well,” she said, and sang something so low and soft and slow that he had to strain to hear her. He thought he caught the words “jolly” and “holiday,” but he was asleep before he could question her.
In the morning he woke up alone. It was cold again. He dressed and washed the soot from behind his ears and found an aging man weeping in the sitting room. “Bert!” said the man and he burst into tears. “Oh my boy, oh my dear, dear, boy. Come sit with me. Would you like some tea?” He sniffed and reached for a cup and knocked it right off the table. “Oh dear. Some toast?” He reached for the toast but Bert was quick and caught it before it fell to the floor. He handed it to the man. “Oh my dear boy, thank you. Thank you.” He took the toast and bit into it. “Oh Bert. I wish we were meeting under different circumstances.”
Bert was too confused to cry and he sat down in a chair opposite the old man. “Are you Mr Albert?”
“Mr Albert!” The man broke into fresh sobs. “Oh dear boy, you must call me Uncle Albert.” He blew his nose on a napkin.
“Uncle Albert. Are you Mary Poppins’ uncle?”
“Me? Oh, I suppose I am an uncle of sorts.” He wiped his eyes with his shirt cuff. “Have some tea, Bert.”
“Oh,” said Bert. He poured himself some tea and held the cup in his hands to warm up. “Mary Poppins said you’re the one who's going to take me to an orphanage.”
“That’s right.” Uncle Albert wiped his eyes. “Dear boy. I am so sorry for your loss.”
Bert didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything. He sipped his tea instead. Uncle Albert viewed him and nodded to himself. “Yes, yes, I see what Mary Poppins meant.”
“What did she say?” he asked.
“You’re a special boy, Bert,” said Uncle Albert. “But of course you know that.” He sighed. “Poor, poor boy. Let me make us more tea.”
He got up. He didn’t walk so much as he floated, somehow, moving through the room with a gracefulness that Bert found disconcerting. Bert picked up a piece of toast and bit it. The house was cold and the high ceilings made him nervous. He missed his room on the second floor. He missed his home. He missed his mother. He folded his arms against the table and put his head down.
Uncle Albert burst into tears again when he re-entered the room. “Dear boy!” He touched Bert’s back. “It will be all right. You’ll see. Mary Poppins is never wrong, you know.” He sat back down.
“I know,” said Bert. He lifted his head. “She was my nanny.”
“Isn’t she grand? My dear Mary Poppins. Whatever would I do without her? Now Bert,” said Uncle Albert, pouring them each a fresh cup of tea and sitting back, “what do you like to do?”
“Nothing,” said Bert, because right now the thought of doing anything made him ill. “I don’t do anything.”
“Nonsense,” said Uncle Albert. “You do many things. You are breathing right now. You are drinking tea. But these are common things. These are things everyone likes to do. What do you, Bert, like to do?”
“Dance,” said Bert, dully. “I like to dance.”
“Very good, very good. Dancers are men you can trust. What else?”
“Um,” said Bert. He shrugged. “I like to draw with chalk.”
“Like the screevers? Oh, theirs is a noble profession, I’ve always said. A dancer and a screever. You are remarkable. Anything else?”
“I like to run away,” said Bert, rather more loud that was necessary. He was very angry all of a sudden and he didn’t know why. “I like to run away and I like to climb on roofs and I like to sweep chimneys, I like to dance and sing at night with them. I like to run away and make Mummy worried. I like to draw. I like my trumpet. I like penguins. I don’t like warm milk or toast or tea and I don’t want to be here.” He had started crying without realising it. “I like my home best of all.” He threw his half-eaten toast across the room. “I want to go home!”
Uncle Albert nodded. “Good, good, very good. A home is what one should like best. But my boy,” he said, leaning forward. “Where is your home?”
“With my mummy,” he said. He wiped his eyes furiously. “My mummy. But she’s gone. I don’t have a home.” He took a deep breath. “I don't.”
“Dear Bert,” said Uncle Albert. “You really haven't got anyone else to turn to?”
“Mary Poppins,” he burst out. “But she’s a nanny!”
“Mary Poppins has a home none of us can go to,” said Uncle Albert. “Would that she had a home for all of us to go, rather than she come to us. Still, that’s just her way, isn’t it? Mary Poppins makes a home for us all.” He pursed his lips. “I do what I can to follow her lead.”
Bert put his head in his arms again. There was a soft clink as Uncle Albert put his cup down. “Most boys like war and mischief, that sort of thing,” he mused. “You like none of that. At least not as much as a regular boy ought. Mary Poppins was right.”
“What,” said Bert into his arms. “What was she right about?”
“Oh everything,” said Uncle Albert vaguely. “She is never wrong. Dear boy, I have a proposition for you. What if you stayed with me?”
“What?” said Bert again. He lifted his head up. Uncle Albert was watching him. “Live with you?”
“I do get lonely,” said Uncle Albert, “and there is never anyone to tell jokes to. Do you like jokes, Bert? And my chimney smokes something terrible.” He nodded and began to smile. “Yes, Bert. Would you like to live with me for a while? I can teach you all sorts of things. I used to dance myself, you know, and I don’t have a bad hand in front of canvas.”
Bert didn’t know what to say. Uncle Albert was a strange and emotional man, but he knew Mary Poppins trusted him and Mary Poppins was never wrong.
“Okay,” he said finally.
Uncle Albert clapped his hands and burst into tears. “Oh how wonderful! Dear, dear, Bert!”
Bert was fifteen and he ran away. He ran away frequently, but this time he ran away for good, and he announced his intentions to Uncle Albert over breakfast that morning. Uncle Albert burst into tears.
“I will miss you!” he sobbed. Bert patted his shoulder. “It’s the best thing,” he said. He was growing tearful too. “It’s time. I’ve got a good job as a chimney sweep and the fellows know the best places for it. I can’t make your carpets sooty anymore. It just doesn’t feel right.”
“I know,” said Uncle Albert. He blew his nose. “Every boy must leave someday. Still, I will miss you so very much. We’ve had so much fun together.”
“We have had fun,” Bert agreed. “I’ll still be around, Uncle Albert, you’ll see. I’ll clean out your chimneys every three months. Your chimney won't catch fire, not if I'm around.”
“You are welcome back at any time,” Uncle Albert said. He dabbed his napkin. “Oh my dear boy, you must come for tea some days.”
“Every week,” Bert promised. “Every week I’ll come round for tea.”
“That would be wonderful,” said Uncle Albert. He waved at Bert to sit down. “At least take some toast before you go.”
Bert picked up some toast, but he did not sit. He was itching to find his friends and see where they made their homes. He loved Uncle Albert dearly, but London called to him. The city was so very much alive; it was too alive for him to bear staying indoors and in place any longer. “Thank you, Uncle Albert. You know I am right blessed to have stayed with you for so long.”
Uncle Albert smiled into his tea. “Mary Poppins is never wrong,” he said.
Bert ignored the sting in his heart at her name. He’d hoped, but she never came back. He’d hoped and she’d promised, but not once in five years did he ever even glimpse her. One day he’d gone all around the city to each Hart family. The family she’d been a nanny for sighed happily over her memory and swore they’d no idea where she had gone. Bert missed her something fierce at first, but slowly became accustomed to her absence. Harder was the loss of his mother, but she too had grown into a faint, but fond, memory that still twisted up his gut if he thought of her too long. He missed his mother daily, but it was, somehow, Mary Poppins who made him feel the most abandoned.
A unfair thought if he ever one, of course, as he couldn’t ask for a better man than Uncle Albert, a man who taught him to draw and who laughed long and hard and did, in fact, float. Uncle Albert would float to the ceiling with laughter and Bert, well, he never could help but follow. Uncle Albert’s laughter was contagious. Uncle Albert's general demeanor was contagious and Bert caught every part of it; Uncle Albert felt life full-on and never held back his laughter or his tears and Bert learned not to either. Uncle Albert was a terrific dancer, too, and Bert learned many moves and turns from him. He even, sometimes, let Bert dance on the kitchen table and would burst into wild applause at the end of Bert's many routines. It had turned out that he himself was not a bad trumpeter and he even owned a piano at which Bert spent many hours tinkering.
“I’ll miss you, Uncle Albert,” Bert said again. “But I’m not gone, not really.” He swallowed the last of his toast. “Thank you for everything. Will you be all right?”
Uncle Albert shook his hand. “I was fine before you and I suppose I’ll be fine after you.” He wiped his eyes. “Yes, I do believe I will. Come visit though, and frequently. Mary Poppins will be very cross if she thinks I’ve thrown you out.”
“Never,” swore Bert. The very idea made him laugh. “You would never. I’ll set her mind straight quick if she ever thinks such a thing. You! Kick me out!”
Uncle Albert began to laugh. “Good man, Bert, you are a good man indeed.” Uncle Albert let go of Bert’s hand. “Mind you say goodbye to Andrew too. He'll miss you.”
Bert grinned. “I will.” He picked up his bag and left the house. Andrew was curled up on the stoop. Bert bent down and scratched him behind the ears. “It’s been fun, Andrew,” he said. “But I’ve got to make me own way now.”
Andrew barked at him. Bert smiled. “Oh, I’m not leaving, not really. You’ll see me, and a good deal more than Mary Poppins, I reckon.”
Andrew snorted and put his head back down. Bert, whistling, walked down the street. Bert was fifteen, and he was running away from home for the last time.
A month to the day later on a warm Tuesday afternoon, Bert stood in the park drawing. “Perfect,” he said, adding a last bit of orange to the beak of a penguin. “Now, isn’t this just beautiful. If I do say so myself.” He wiped his hands on his pants and stood with his hands on hips, looking down at his art. It was a very good penguin.
“It could use some depth, I’d say,” said a familiar voice to his left. Bert jumped half out of his shirt in shock and whirled around. Mary Poppins stood before him looking decidedly unimpressed. “Really Bert, you’ve forgotten to add the shadows.”
Bert was too surprised to say anything. Mary Poppins shook her head and clucked at him. “Bert, you’ve forgotten all your manners in my absence. I’d have thought that Uncle Albert would have kept you straight.”
“Mary Poppins!” he managed. “Mary Poppins.”
“Is that any kind of hello to your old nanny?” Mary Poppins retorted, looking not a day older than the first day he'd met her. “Come and shake my hand like a proper gentleman.”
He tripped over his own feet in his excitement and ended up head over heels, crouched in front of her. She laughed, hand out. He kissed the back of her hand. “Mary Poppins!”
“I see you’ve retained your natural grace,” said Mary Poppins. “Bert, what are you doing out here?”
“I’m screever today,” said Bert. He stood. He was nearly as tall as her now. “Thought you’d of anyone would recognise a proper screever.”
“Proper screevers don’t forget their shadows,” she said, gazing down at his panels. “This penguin is all right, but these others lack depth.” She pointed at one drawing of a country road. “Bert, where is your chalk?”
He handed it to her and she knelt down. “A proper country road curves just so,” she said, adjusting his road. “And you must never, never forget where that road leads too.” She snapped her fingers and he put another piece of chalk in her hands. She filled out the background behind his road with rolling hills. “After all, there’s no point in a road if it hasn’t got anywhere to go.”
He looked over her shoulder. “It is much nicer this way.”
She added a small house on top of one of the hills. “Bert, have you ever been to the country?”
“No ma’am, never got around to it.”
“Oh, that explains it,” said Mary Poppins, as if that explained anything. Half the screevers in the park hadn't left London and their panels were just fine; Bert didn't see why he was such an exception. But Mary Poppins had her hand out, waving at him to come closer. “You can’t draw what you’ve never seen. That explains your penguin too--”
“My penguin!” he said. “You said my penguin was just fine!”
“--still, I think we can do something about that. Come. Take my hand.”
He took her hand. “On the count of three,” she said, “we will jump. One – two – three!”
They jumped. He nearly fainted when he looked around. “Where are we?” He was dressed in a white suit, much cleaner and nicer than the clothes he'd been wearing just a moment ago.
“A country road,” said Mary Poppins. “Of course. Bert, let’s see where this road goes. I’m sure it goes somewhere lovely.” She looked him up and down. “You look lovely yourself. A white suit. What a nice hand, you have, Bert. Such an eye for flattering colors.” She look down at her own sleeves. “How nice.”
He turned around in a circle. There, all around him, was the grass and the trees and the birds and the river and – there, all around him, was his picture. He turned to her, confused. “Are we in my picture?”
“Are we?” she said, with a smile that belayed nothing. “What a ridiculous question. Bert, let’s go for a walk. I’d like to see what’s beyond those hills. I'm sure you do too.”
He took her arm and they walked. There was much more down the road than he could ever fit in a panel. Over the hill, there was a merry-go-round and beyond the merry-go-round, a farmhouse, and further beyond that, a race track. They walked for hours, it seemed, but he never tired. Mary Poppins sang cheerfully as they walked and he found he could with her without any trouble at all. Beyond the race track, there was a zoo, and beyond the zoo, more road. They walked until they found a boardwalk on a spotless beach. Bert swore he'd never drawn a beach scene before. Mary Poppins scoffed. “How silly of you.”
She let go of his arm and walked down the boardwalk, drawing a hand against the rail. “I imagine you could draw this without any trouble at all.” She turned around. “Do you see the shadows, Bert?”
“Yes, Mary Poppins,” he said, somewhat distracted. She was a vision in white, and still, five years later, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He caught himself wondering how she managed that and almost laughed. Mary Poppins could do whatever she wanted.
“Don’t stare, Bert,” she said. He blushed and she rolled her eyes. “You've got a good eye for color, but that’s no reason to be rude.”
He choked. “Rude! Mary Poppins, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
She laughed. “Am I?”
“The most,” he said, flustered and ineloquent. “No woman in the world could compare.”
“Thank you, Bert,”she said. “You are very sweet.”
He blushed again. She sighed. “I’m afraid we must be going. Take my arm.”
They jumped off the boardwalk and onto the pavement in the park. Unsteady on his feet, he stumbled. It was dark out and the lamps had already been lit for the evening. Mary Poppins sighed. “What a lovely day I’ve had with you, Bert. We must do this again. But I must be off. A nanny can’t return home too late. Mr and Mrs Honey would be mortified. And so would I, come to think of it.”
“A nanny?” he said. “Did I take you away from your children?”
“Nonsense,” she said, frowning at him. “I would never be so negligent. It is my Tuesday off.”
“I’m sorry if I distracted you,” he said. “I’m sure you had more important things to do.”
“More important? I’m sure I didn’t.” She smiled. “Bert, shake my hand. I must be off.”
“Let me escort you home,” he begged, clasping her gloved hand in his bare ones.
“That would disgrace me and I’d never find a job again in this town. Having a boy your age escort me to my place of employ!” She was indignant and it made him all the more earnest. “I’m fifteen!” he argued.
She pulled her hands loose from his and touched his cheek. “You are fifteen, aren't you? Has it been so long since I last saw you? Oh Bert.”
“Will I see you again?” he asked, suddenly ten years old, or five, and afraid of being left alone. “Please, Mary Poppins, please may I?”
Mary Poppins did not hesitate this time, but smiled again. “You will. Do not,” she cautioned, “attempt to find the house at which I am engaged. But you will see me again. I’m sure of it.”
He tried not to let his relief show, but she laughed at him as she turned to go. “Mind you don’t forget your chalk.”
He watched her walk away. He picked up his chalk and headed to the rooftops. “Mary Poppins,” he mused. He hoped he would see her again soon.
Bert was twenty-five and a jack-of-all-trades. Bert was twenty-five and a gentleman. Bert was twenty-five.
Bert tried his very best to be a good man. He lived in an attic the size of two coffins and that was just right for him and all his instruments. He had his own set of bristles and enough money that he never ran short of chalk. He was regularly short on food, but that was no great matter to him. His attic was warm and he was comfortable there. His landlords had no idea he lived there, but their chimneys were always spit-clean and he supposed that was payment enough. Bert had enough.
He had a girl or two in every borough and friends enough to fill the Thames. He saw Uncle Albert once a week for tea. He found pleasure in the company of all and found also that he was more and more without a smile. London was entirely too dreary for him to make it worse with a frown. Besides, it was a new century. A whole world of possibilities was open before him. Of course, he spent most of his possibilities carousing with the sweeps or romancing girls, but that was no great loss. The possibilities of this new century were endless. He spent many of his nights dancing in and out of those possibilities. That’s who he was, some days. Bert: a man of possibilities.
He could dance. Oh, he could dance! And he could jump from rooftop to rooftop, flip clear over a chimney and land with his feet on the ledge of a three story house. He’d never been arrested, and he thanked his lucky stars for it. He’d played music in front of a constable many-a-time and they found him good enough not to arrest him. Admittedly it did take a while to perfect the flute, but London was forgiving. An enterprising young man as himself was never harassed too much by the real musicians of London. He was friendly with a lot of them.
He was a screever too, and a good one at that. He got a couple of coins here and there, but most of all he loved to draw for the shrieking children who ran up to him. They loved his penguins. His penguins were charming and, as he told these children, they could dance. Then he’d dance a penguin dance to show them.
Bert was twenty-five and he was happy. He laughed long and loud with Uncle Albert eavery week. He was warm and dry at night, when he cared to be, and he had many friends.
But he never saw Mary Poppins, or if he did, it was only from a far. It bit at him, a little, not seeing her when she said she would see him. Mary Poppins was never wrong, but still, he didn’t like it. He never really knew if he saw her. Once he thought he saw her walking away from him out of the fish market, followed by four little boys. Another time he thought he saw her smiling, two blocks down, at a constable, two children at her side. One day he thought he saw her at the other end of the park and he ran clear across the grass, instruments and all, but it was not her. It was a nanny of similar carriage but with ears more severe and a mouth stuck in a frown. He’d apologised twice and entertained her charges for ten minutes with jokes until they was rolling around the ground laughing and their nanny was calling for a constable.
But he missed her only bit a little, and he was content enough to remind himself that he would see her again. Mary Poppins was never wrong and she had promised.
But, as it always had been, the knowledge that Mary Poppins was never wrong was not enough to stop him from half-dying of shock when she appeared in front of him one day with a little girl at her side. He was in front of the park selling his newly re-designed kites, perfect for kite-fliers of all ages, and there she was, as if she’d been there standing next to him all his life.
“Mary Poppins,” he said, dropping his kite. “Mary Poppins!”
“Bert,” said Mary Poppins, smiling. “It’s so lovely to see you again.”
“Lovely?” he said, disbelieving. “It’s been ten years! I’d half given up on ever seeing you again!”
“What does he mean?” said the little girl at her side, tugging Mary Poppins' skirt. “What does he mean, ten years?”
Mary Poppins opened her mouth, probably to admonish the girl for wrinkling her skirt but Bert crouched down to meet her eye to eye. “Have you ever flown kite?” he asked her. “All the questions that life offers can found when you fly a kite.”
“Of course I’ve flown a kite!” said the little girl. “But I never had a single questioned answered.”
“You weren’t asking the right questions,” he assured her, and it was not until her kite was well and truly in the air that he turned to Mary Poppins again. She was smiling at him. “You are terrible, Bert, spoiling them like this.”
“Them?” he said.
“Don’t think I haven’t seen you drawing pictures for children or singing songs just for them,” she said. “I know how you get around children.”
“You?” he said, crossing his arms, “see me? When?”
“Oh Bert, for such a smart young man, you are incredibly dim. I’ve always kept an eye on you.”
“You might have said something,” he said, beginning to feel very cross. She had always! He'd never so much as heard her laugh.“I was beginning to think you’d forgotten all about me.”
“Yes, well,” she said. “I come when I’m called and I come only for the very worst cases. I can't control it.”
It took him a moment to catch her meaning. “Worst cases?” he said. “Am I one of your worst cases?”
“The very worst,” she said, but she said it with such a smile on her face that he felt he had no recourse other than to take her hand and squeeze it. “Ah, Mary Poppins. You always knew how to make a boy feel special.”
“You are a very special young man,” she said. “You’re not a boy any longer and I will not pretend that you are. We can’t always be five, you know, however much we might like to be.”
He shrugged, and set about giving her a kite of her own. She waved him off. “No, Bert, I’ve more than enough kites with this child.” She frowned at him. “You never saw me? Ever?”
He told her of the days when he thought he had, when he might have, when he was so tired or cold that he never really knew for sure. She laughed at each instance, shaking her head. “Oh Bert, you ridiculous man. You never did catch on.”
“Catch on to what?” he asked.
She crossed her arms. “The winds, Bert. Don’t you remember? I come and go when the winds change. And look, today,” she held up a hand, “the winds are changing. I will be going soon. This one,” she nodded at the little girl, “won’t need me anymore.”
He shook his head, smiling a little. He felt quite bad for the little girl at her side. “Ah, Mary Poppins. Take it from me, we’ll always need you.”
She smiled. “You only think you do. Clara,” she called out, “it’s time to go.”
“I don’t want to go!” shouted the little girl, stomping her foot.
“Nevermind what you want. Your father will be so displeased if we are late for supper.”
“Daddy doesn’t care one wit about me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He cares about you very much.”
The little girl tried return her kite, but Bert shook his head. “You keep it, Miss Clara. You never know, maybe that father of yours will want to fly it with you.”
“Daddy never wants to do anything with me,” she said, stomping again.
“Now, now,” he said. “Have you ever asked him to fly a kite with you?”
“Try it,” he said. “You might be surprised.”
Mary Poppins stood to the side, a look of infinite amusement playing about her eyes. “I see I’m not needed here in the slightest. Bert, you might as well walk Clara home.”
“And rob her of her last day with Miss Mary Poppins? I would never.” He smiled at the little girl. “You take care now and don’t forget your old friend Bert.” He stood. “Mary Poppins. Will I see you again?”
“If you look, you ridiculous man. Look for the winds changing and you’ll know that I’m around.”
She took Clara’s hand and marched off. Clara waved and waved until they crossed the street and turned the corner. Bert picked up a new kite. The winds were just right for kite-flying. But Tuesday winds usually were.
Bert was thirty and it was a Tuesday evening. He was playing his music in front of the park to the enjoyment of a great deal of people. They were all finely dressed and having a wonderful time. So was he. Having a wonderful time, that is, not finely dressed. He was finely dressed enough for the occasion – worn and patched clothes never mattered to a true musician. He hit his drum.
“All right, ladies and gents,” he said, “a comical poem suitable for the occasion, extemporized and thought up before your eyes!”
They laughed, and Andrew barked at him. He winked at Andrew and turned on Ms Locke and Mrs Cory, two women always in need of a smile. The crowd laughed long and loud. He grinned and turned to Ms Persimmon, a dear old woman and his favorite patron, ready to sing. At that very moment, the wind swept through the crowd and the clouds gathered above. He stopped, puzzled. Andrew barked and he straightened. “Winds in the east,” he mused to himself, “mist’s coming in.”
The wind swept through the crowd again. It came upon him in an instant and he grinned. It had been a month since he’d seen her, but there was no mistaking those winds. She was coming back.
Andrew barked and shook him out of his revery. “I’m sorry,” he said to the crowd. “Where was I?”
He threw himself headlong into a march he’d learned from the sweeps and thought of little else but Mary Poppins when he finished the song. The crowd scattered and he was near distraction until you waved at him.
“Oh, it’s you!” he said. He wasn't sure when or where he'd see her, only that he would, and he welcomed your interruption from any such fruitless wondering as to when and where. He smiled at you. “Hello!”