10 May 1941
Flt. Lt. Michael Banks
No. 141 Sqdn.
RAF Station, Wittering
There is a moment's peace as this evening's shelling seems well and truly done, and I will take advantage of the dimmed lamplight to put pen to paper and relate this most odd and utterly baffling coincidence, which I hope will bring a smile or, at the very least, a shake of the head. The hospital as you can well imagine is full up with new cases arriving from London like clockwork. They are not all lunatics or shell shock, for we are also taking on a light load of wounded. You should hear the stories these people have to tell of being asleep in their beds or being indisposed in the w.c., when there's a shrieking whistle and then there's no more roof or floor. Finding yourself broken and trouserless in a heap of mortar and brick must be a nasty shock indeed, and makes me glad I moved away from that sooty old town the moment my Perry and Gillian went off to the farm. (I miss them every day more, Michael, and cannot imagine August will ever come. I've enclosed two letters from them to their beloved uncle. They ask after you often. Perry wants to know if you've yanked Hitler's whiskers yet.)
Two weeks ago a transport (really a dairy truck) arrived from London with a handful of patients inside, one of whom was an old gentleman in his early seventies, I'd wager. Rather stooped and toothless, but affable and conversant, speaking in a most pronounced Cockney inflection. Truthfully, I wasn't sure to start just why exactly he had been brought to us. Though perhaps undernourished, he was fit enough for one his age. And he didn't seem addled or disturbed in the least. At first. The only thing I saw to cause me any immediate concern for this gentleman was his predilection for extremely strong tea, which I was surprised to discover was heavily laced with a rancid label of Scotch (he's definitely a lower-class gent of meager means). It wasn't until his second night here that we all came to know just what demons haunted the man. It was possibly two o'clock in the morning when the screaming started. It was coming from his bunk and, well, it's hard to describe, but these weren't the cries of pain or fear or madness that we're all accustomed to here at Fulbourne, these were body-wracking bellows of sadness. "Sobbing from the soul", as Ms Thomas put it. That's what made it all the more startling. Once awakened, our old gent seemed to be fine and quite ignorant of the streaks of tears still drying upon his cheeks. When pressed as to what possible night terrors might have shaken him (and all the rest of the ward) so, he seemed stuck for an answer and merely uttered a word. One ridiculous word that would ring familiar to, perhaps, only two other people in all Her Majesty's realm. With a shrug, the man replied, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious". Tell me you remember this word!
So bizarre a wave of reminiscence washed over me in that instant that I dismissed it as something misheard, a mistake of my ears at such an early hour. I pressed on without speaking of it with our patient; I was a tired soul after all. But still it stayed with me as I'm sure it would with you. Indulge me, Michael, and try to recall that time when we were quite young, no more than six or seven surely, and father hired on that rather eccentric nanny for a time. This was before the sad days to come, before we lost the twins to the fever. As I remember it, she came on during a strange spring, what with mother at the height of her "Sister Suffragette" fervor and father being father (this was around the time of his sacking and subsequent promotion by the bank). This nanny wasn't with us for more than a season or two, but I remember even her name made us giggle. "Poppins", she was called (you're giggling now, admit it!). That woman – with her odd games and songs and that parrot-headed umbrella, it amazes me the clarity with which those days return.
As I said, I did not, at first, reveal to Bert (as he introduced himself) that his nonsensical rambling had struck a chord within my memory, but I made sure to visit with him often. In his cups, as he strove to be a great portion of the time, he was quite genteel, offering up colorful tales of his life as a jack-of-all-trades (match-man, chimney sweep, sidewalk artist, busker to name but a few of his myriad occupations), and I thoroughly enjoyed our talks. But soon enough his "medicinal supplements" were found out and the doctors quickly put an end to it. More's the pity for it presently became clear that his spirits were all that kept his shadows at bay. Such a dark cloud hung about him day and night, such a drear silence overtook him, I feared we had lost him prematurely. I kept at him though, plying him with biscuits and sweets, anything I could smuggle to him. He seemed to know I was there and his eyes, at least, would follow me about the room. Last night, as I fluffed his pillows and prepared to administer his sleeping draughts (all that could quiet his nightly outbursts), his hand gently halted my own with the spoon so nearly to his lips. I'm used to this, I must say, it goes with the profession, so I smiled and coaxed in my best fashion, "Now, now, then, Bert, this is to help you sleep."
There was the slightest glimmer of a smile and the first words he spoke in a week. "Nuttin' whot tastes like 'at could be of any 'elp to man nor beast. Try it y'self, luv, if y' don't believe me."
I was so happy to have him back that I nearly spilled the offending stuff all down the front of his gown. I told him not to worry, that I had just the thing to help the bitter flavor of the drug, and I reached for the evening's teacart. I had taken the sugar bowl and was doling a small amount directly onto the spoon, sing-songing as I did so, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." This had quite an affect on Bert. An animation came to his features that I had not previously witnessed.
"You knew 'er then?" he said, "You knew my Mary?"
I then admitted that I had, in my youth, been the charge of a most unique nanny by the name of Mary Poppins, though I had not until that moment remembered the origin of that tuneful enticement which I had used so frequently as both nurse and mother.
He studied my face intently for the moment, asking my name. I gave him both, married and maiden, and again he came to life, grinning broad and yellow and holding my hand between his.
"Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane! You're little Jane Banks!"
I promise you, Michael, he said just that and I suppose my expression must have been as pop-eyed and slack-jawed as yours is bound to be as you read this, for Bert immediately broke into a high, phlegmy laugh of delight. A good laugh, I had to share it. "How on earth-?" I finally managed.
He claimed to have met you and I and poor little Barbera and John, during that season (indeed, that he had even swept our chimney) and went on in an enthusiastic remembrance of impossible events which we had supposedly shared with Mary Poppins. Teas taken on the ceiling, picnics in chalk paintings, conversations with zoo animals, dressing the night sky with paper stars! Utter barking madness and yet, I confess, familiar madness – like half-remembered dreams of childhood. I betrayed nothing one way or the other as, I have learned in my time amongst the disturbed, it isn't wise to either validate or disavow their delusions. Instead I urged him on to tell me more of Ms. Poppins herself and at this a blissful calm settled over his features. He sighed deep and long and began to speak in tones of sheer adulation.
"Practic'lly perfect in ev'ry way she was. 'Appiness bloomed all around 'er," he said, and he rambled on about daisies and doves and his heart beating like a brass band, and I suddenly knew what the old man had been sobbing about. Though I had trouble reconciling this vision of his one great love with the vain martinet who once upon a time marshaled us about with a crisp, "Spit-spot!"
I asked him whatever became of Ms. Poppins, for even though I quite recall the four of us pleading with Mother and Father to keep her on, we never saw her again.
"Well she 'ad t'go, di'n't she?" he said with a new sinking of his voice, his eyes watering, "Just as she always said she would. Not a lie in 'er. But I been wotchin' the skies fer a long time now 'cause the wind'll change one o' these days an' she'll come back t'me, she will. An' when she does we'll laugh ourselves right to th' ceilin' an' never come down!"
His hands trembled so and his mouth quavered making me instantly regretful that I'd turned the conversation this way. Knowing well the rules of this place, but not wanting the man to suffer any longer, I retrieved his bottle of Scotch and allowed him to drink deeply hoping this would aid his draughts in finally easing him into sleep. He blessed me and managed a smile through the tears. He remained awake long enough to ask me about you and when I told him that you were a flier for the RAF, he grinned.
"Always liked a good kite, 'e did," he said.
True enough, said I with a laugh, again marveling at his recall of our much younger selves. When I then expressed my concern for your safety, he drowsily waved it away saying your luck would hold true since you'd shaken his sooty hand in the days of your acquaintance. I thanked him for that and stayed on a bit longer until he was solidly asleep. He slumbered peacefully that night, and I know more than just I was glad about that.
This morning as I awoke something felt different, odd, as if the air itself had gotten a good night's sleep. It was impossible for me to place this sensation, so I went about my early rounds as per usual. I had barely got to the second ward before young Rose came hurrying around the corner to find me. I knew already from the reserved, timid expression on her face what it was she had come to tell me. She said, "Come with me, miss. It's your old gentleman."
Bert had passed away sometime in the night, doing so quietly and seemingly at peace. Though I knew what she had meant by it, I confess I had, in the back of my mind, taken some small offense at Rose's description of Bert as being "my" old gentleman. But when I came to his bed in time to see the orderlies laying him upon the gurney like an old kit full of potatoes, a change had come over me the same as that which had settled upon the day and I was glad to have had Bert as my old gentleman. If no one else would have him, if the very one his heart clung to for countless years wouldn't claim him, then I gladly would.
As I left hospital this afternoon to join the other nurses in a market run, I felt slightly melancholy, though again I noticed a difference in the very atmosphere around me. It was the wind had changed, blowing in warm and free of the usual stink of smoke and petrol. A new wind, an east wind. And I smiled for a moment thinking of my children, thinking of my departed Wesley, thinking of you. Bert, in his own way, knew a bigger truth than those tempted to disregard him in the face of his eccentricities and fairy tales – he knew that the world, the weather, the wind would always change, but that love, ever nurtured and ever true, was constant.
Be safe, brother dearest, and come home soon.