Bert played with his hat, twisting it, shaking out anything, adjusting it on his head and taking it off again. He had been forced by one of his friends to go to the doctor when he had become too weak to do his famous "Step in time" routine.
The doctor walked into the room and Bert jumped out of the seat, taking off his hat. The doctor's face was grave. "Is there anyone you want here with you to hear this?"
Well, yeah, Doc, I want a lot of people 'ere: Michael, Jane, Mary Poppins, my mum, and all of me pals. But Jane and Michael are in school right now, Mary Poppins is overseas in America, my mum is dead, and all me pals are working. Bert instead said, "No, there's nobody around for me at this time of day, Doc," tipping his cap with a smile.
Doctor Hodges nodded and motioned for Bert to sit down. When Bert was sitting, Dr. Hodges bent his head and looked up with a sympathetic expression. "I'm sorry, Bert."
The sympathetic expression passed, Bert knew because of years' worth of experience breaking bad news.
Dr. Hodges said, "Bert, you have bone cancer. The stage you're in is not ideal, but we can still save your life as long as you fight this cancer as hard as it's fighting you."
Bert nodded, almost absently. The first person he had to tell about this was Mary Poppins, but it wasn't quite something you just say casually over the phone.
"Oh, what's Poppin', Mary? Yes, I understand that's on the list of things I'm not supposed to say to you. Listen, I just wanted to inform you that I have been diagnosed with bone cancer that I have a 50% chance of surviving, carry on with your job."
"Bert!" Dr. Hodges said, waving a hand in front of Bert's face. Bert snapped back to attention.
Dr. Hodges went through a long, expensive list of every procedure Bert would have to go through to become cancer-free.
Bert held up a hand. "Listen, Doc…I want to fight this cancer, I do, trust me. I just…I don't have the money for it, Doc."
"Is there anyone you know who can help you?"
Well, Mary Poppins would be willing to do so in a heartbeat, as would the Banks family. But Bert knew good and well that he wasn't going to ask them for a single pence if he could help it. Bert shook his head. "Not a one, sir."
"The hospital may waive your fees. But, Bert, I want you to be prepared if they won't. You'll be in debt for the rest of your life if the hospital doesn't waive your bills."
Bert nodded. "I understand perfectly, Doc. Other people are worse off. I'll see if I can scrap together some more money doing what I can, but what I'm askin' is what are my chances of surviving this without much treatment?"
Dr. Hodges said, "Your cancer is T2, meaning it's relatively treatable, but it's larger than how it started out. Good news: the cancer is where it started. Bad news: if you're not treated, it is likely the cancer will grow until it moves to other parts of the body. And once it inhabits other parts of the body, your chances of surviving plummet. I am going to make sure you get your treatment if I have to pay your fees."
Bert's eyes widened and he shook his head.
"It's not up for debate. Have a good day, Mr. Alfred." Dr. Hodges opened the door and ushered Bert out. All Bert worried about at this point was breaking the news to Mary Poppins.
Bert wanted to wait for Mary Poppins to come back to London before telling the Banks children, but they loved talking to him, and when they saw him back from his doctor's appointment, they sprinted to him.
"Bert! What is it you've got?" Michael and Jane shouted in unison. Bert's mouth opened and he didn't quite know how to break it to them.
"Come 'ere and let's sit down," Bert said, sitting on the curb. Jane sat on one side of him and Michael sat on the other. Bert rubbed his chin before saying, "I'm very sick, kids. Doc says I have 50-50 chance at surviving this sickness."
Michael said, "Well, that's good!"
Jane reached across Bert and slapped her brother's arm. "No, it's not! He has just as much of a chance of living as he has a chance of dying." Tears were already in Jane's eyes.
At this, it didn't take too long for the tears to well up in Michael's eyes.
Bert buried his face in his hands. These kids were taking the news harder than he took it, and he kicked himself for not waiting until Mary Poppins came.
Jane was older – a few days ago, she had turned nine, Bert remembered – and she was more likely to understand the situation. She tugged on Bert's sleeve and Bert peeked out from his fingers. "What kind of illness do you have?"
Bert's face fell and both children cried harder at his seriousness. "I have cancer."
Jane screamed and buried her face in Bert's side to cry. Michael held Bert's hand and kept tugging on his sleeve, for a reason unknown to Bert.
Bert let them cry for a few moments, and then he swept Jane into his arms, still holding Michael's hand. "C'mon, I'll take you both 'ome."
Once they reached No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, Bert set Jane down, and both children tore for the door, opening it and calling for their mother, all while dragging Bert along with them.
Winifred Banks walked out to her two children crying harder than she'd seen them cry since they were infants and saw the man standing behind them trying hard not to join the water works factory. Through a blubbering mess and a lot of jumbled words, Winifred finally understood that Bert had cancer. She called for Ellen to take the children to bed while she had a word with Bert.
"How bad is it, Bert?" she asked him. He wasn't too surprised that she knew his name, as he figured Jane and Michael talked about some of their adventures together and she could have heard Mary Poppins call him by name.
"Stage two bone cancer, madam. It's treatable."
She looked into his eyes and read right through him. "But not affordable."
Bert tipped his cap and smiled. "Not for me, madam."
"Nonsense!" Winifred protested, shaking her head. "I'm sure George will be happy to cover whatever expenses you need to pay."
Bert shook his head. "Please, madam, I don't feel right askin' for your money or acceptin' it, either."
Winifred pursed her lips and Bert knew he hadn't changed her mind, but she wasn't going to keep arguing.
"I hope you get better, Bert," she said, hugging him. Bert was surprised. The only person who had ever hugged him was Mary Poppins, and that was because they were best friends. But Bert hugged Mrs. Banks back.
Jane and Michael ran down the staircase and hugged his legs. He bent over and pressed them closer to him, rubbing their backs.
"I'm not letting you go, Bert! I won't!" Michael muffled into Bert's trousers.
Bert chuckled at this and knelt to hug them better.
After a few moments, Mrs. Banks pulled the two off of Bert and herded them upstairs. Bert called up the staircase, "Look for me in the park tomorrow, you 'ear?" Both kids nodded eagerly.
Over the course of the next two weeks, Bert went to the doctor another time, played with the Banks children until they fell asleep in the park and he had to carry them home, and fell asleep watching Jane and Michael when Mr. and Mrs. Banks went to the annual "bank ball."
As he was heading home from No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, he saw Mary Poppins. He considered sprinting to hug her or turning and running away, but she saw him first.
"ALBERT THOMAS ALFRED."
It was definitely a time to run. Bert turned to run, but Mary grabbed his arm and spun him around. "Did you even consider running away from me?"
Bert's mouth opened and he didn't have a response, so he just shrugged guiltily.
Mary Poppins pursed her lips and looked down and they settled into a comfortable silence. And then Mary lifted her carpetbag and smacked Bert in the face with it.
"OI! Bloody…Mary." Bert moved his jaw side-to-side and glared at his best friend.
"Of all things, you have cancer?!" Mary stared at him before gathering him into a hug.
"How did you know…never mind." Bert said, remembering her magic accounted for knowledge about those she loved.
Mary pulled back and tsked her tongue. "Of all things…"
"I'm sorry, Mary," Bert said with a smile.
"As well you should be. I can't lose you."
Bert jumped on that phrase with a smug smirk. "You can't lose me?"
Mary nodded her proper nod. "Of course I can't lose you. You're my best friend, Bert."
"Just your best friend, right?"
"BERT!" she said with a stomp of her heel. Bert chuckled and offered her his arm. "You wish for some cakes, Ms. Poppins?"
"Of course, Bert," she said, looping her arm through his. Bert just smiled at her and they walked back to his home.