Author's Notes: You'll find this story is based more on the Mary Poppins books than the movie (plus a few minor details of my own). You'll still understand most of it if you've only seen the movie but the characterization of Mary Poppins is closer to the book-version than the movie-version. Just a heads-up.
DAWDLING BY THE WINDOW
The soft strains of a hesitating melody drifted out through an open window on Cherry Tree Lane, and one would only need a moment to realize that it was coming from Number Seventeen, of course, because that's where hesitating melodies usually came from. The melodies hadn't always been hesitating, but then again, the pianist hadn't always had the hands of a one-hundred and two year old.
Just let your hundredth birthday pass and see if you can play Chopin quite the way you used to, she'd said one time to an inquiring neighbor. The mind remembers the notes, the keys, and the arpeggios, but as the hands get older, they're less apt to listen to what the mind has to say. After all, who has the gall to tell any part of a centenarian what to do?
White, wispy hair – still combed neatly and styled – blew with the gentle wind that was tiptoeing into what was once a very respectable parlour, and which was now a very respectable sitting room. The lady at the piano continued to play gently, almost reverently, as she gazed out the window onto the familiar street that she'd seen change so much over the decades. She remembered when Number Twenty-Two still stood across the street, its worn bricks unapologetically showing its age even when she was a child, and how it had stood bravely for as long as it could amidst the onslaught of a war that brought carnage to one's doorstep, before sharing the same fate that many of the houses on Cherry Tree Lane suffered when it was destroyed in the Blitz.
However, Number Seventeen still stood as smartly and resolutely as it always had.
"Miss Jane?" a soft voice called from the doorway. Jane Monroe, formerly Banks, turned slowly to find Abigail, her caretaker and companion for the past twenty years, standing on the threshold with a few small sandwiches and some tea. "Would you like lunch?"
Jane smiled warmly. "No thank you, Abigail. It's such a lovely day to play, isn't it?"
"It is, Miss Jane."
No matter how many times Jane gently reminded Abigail that 'Miss' was normally a title reserved for ladies far younger than herself, Abigail nevertheless insisted on addressing her as such.
"Is it too cold in here?" Abigail asked, a look of slight alarm crossing her face as she caught sight of the open window. Jane held back a laugh.
"Good gracious, Abigail. You think I'm some delicate leaf that will be blown away in the slightest breeze, don't you?" Jane turned back to the piano and began to play once more. "No, it feels wonderful to have the summer breeze on my face."
"It's getting rather windy is all," Abigail said distractedly, putting down the tray of food and gathering up the newspapers that Jane had voraciously read that morning, it being her custom to start the day armed with the knowledge of all that was happening in the world. "Wouldn't be surprised if we had a spot of rain later."
It is England, after all, Jane thought to herself wryly with a small smile. Her hands, seemingly of their own volition, stopped playing and shook. Jane was studying this rather strange turn of affairs as if her hands did not belong to her when all of a sudden the room felt as though it were spinning. She closed her eyes, willing it to stop. Abigail noticed Jane's anxious expression and rushed to her side immediately.
"Miss Jane?" she cried, grasping Jane's shoulders gently just as Jane began to keel. "Miss Jane, can you hear me?"
The effect lasted only a few moments before Jane seemed to come out of it. "Oh…I…I just got a little dizzy, Abigail," she mumbled by way of explanation, holding onto the piano seat to steady herself. "I'm – I'm all right. Really."
Concern etched Abigail's face. "Now that I'm not so sure of. I think I ought to call Dr. Jules."
"No need," Jane insisted, although her voice was weak. "I'm just tired, Abigail. That's all."
"But – But you seemed ill just then, Miss Jane."
"Yes, naturally I'm ill," Jane said good-naturedly as she rose under her own power, the sunlight flecking her thin white hair as she stood. "And I'm afraid it's terminal." Abigail's face twisted in horror before Jane smiled and quickly added, "It's called old age, dear. And none of us escape it. No matter how many piano sonatas we know by heart."
Abigail tsked. "Now, Miss Jane, if Dr. Michael were here, what do you suppose he'd say?"
"Why, I suppose if he were here, he'd say, 'My goodness! How is this possible? I've been dead eight years!'"
Again Abigail's face contorted in shocked silence, which made Jane laugh.
"Abigail, if you can't laugh at death once you get to be my age, you haven't got much left to laugh about," she pointed out to her nurse, who, although possessing a warm and gentle heart, was prone to worry and fuss when it came to her beloved patient. Jane wobbled only slightly as she turned to exit the room with some steadying help from Abigail, who was still trying to think of a reply to Jane's morbid joke. Jane encircled Abigail's shoulders with an arm, and the two began the slow trek towards the staircase.
The dizziness subsided somewhat, and Jane took her time in examining the numerous family photos on the walls. Her eyes fell on one in particular and her face lit up. "Did I ever tell you the story about this one, Abigail?" she asked, extending a bony finger toward a faded photograph of a younger Jane standing next to a young man, who was dressed in graduation robes and proudly holding a degree parchment aloft.
Abigail smiled. She'd heard the story a dozen times, but was always ready to hear it again. "No, Miss Jane."
Jane's smile widened. "It's my brother, Michael, on the day he graduated from medical school, right before he started his residency in a London hospital. My parents were there, too. In fact, my father took the picture. Oh, they were so proud to have a doctor in the family!"
"I'm sure they were, Miss Jane."
"Oh and this one. Look at how handsome Henry looks in this one." Jane chuckled with obvious sentimentality. "I always said I would only marry a handsome man, and I'm glad to say that I did just that, Abigail. This is our first day in Nigeria." Indeed, the photograph did show a handsome young man, with his hands around the waist of a young Jane, as they stood against a verdant, gently rolling background – the plot of land they'd just bought to cultivate their own sugar cane crop. Jane passed on, her eyes lingering on another portrait of she and Henry that was taken when they were both older and had moved back to Cherry Tree Lane. "And this one. This is when I was presented with an award from the Children's Society. Oh, I was so proud, Abigail. I'd worked so hard."
"You did quite a bit of charity work, didn't you Miss Jane?"
"In my day, I suppose. But then, I had such a wonderful life – why wouldn't I want to give something back, hm?"
They'd reached the stairs when Jane stopped and untangled herself from Abigail. "Thank you, Abigail. I can make it the rest of the way on my own."
"Oh but – "
"No, no. I can make it. I know I can," Jane insisted as she began to climb the stairs. Abigail said nothing, but stood at the bottom of the stairs, watching her breathlessly. However, Jane reached the top triumphantly a few moments later and gave a small smile and nod to Abigail at the bottom. "I've been climbing these steps for one hundred years, Abigail," she reminded her. "The footfalls of every member of my family have reverberated up and down these steps." She turned to find the large, familiar family portrait which hung at the top of the stairs looking back at her, waiting, as always, to be admired. "And the footfalls of many other important people in my life, as well," she recalled softly to herself.
For it wasn't a normal family portrait. Normal family portraits showed stiff poses, awkward smiles and the kind of clothes that one wouldn't be caught dead in except when a portrait was being taken. But this one showed a large group of people in their ordinary clothes, striking ordinary poses, and each one's expression was different; it was truly one moment of real life perfectly captured in time and as such, it had always been Jane's favorite picture. As she scanned the faces, the voices, the laughter and the memories all came flooding back.
In the background stood Mr. and Mrs. Banks, with Mr. Banks looking slightly flush. He had received a camera for his birthday as a present from Mrs. Banks, who really felt he needed a new hobby and naturally should take up the most fashionable hobby of the day, and had called on the entire household to gather in front of the strange looking contraption in the parlour in order to test it out. In his rush to assemble everyone, he'd grown a bit flushed, and the cord attached to the camera to release the shutter was clearly visible in his right hand. Mrs. Banks' attention, at that moment, had been on the angle of her hat, thinking that of course Mr. Banks wouldn't dare take the picture before she was ready (and in this, she was sadly mistaken). In front of them stood their five children – Michael (eight years old and holding a toy saber, thinking he looked quite dashing as he held it threateningly to the camera), Jane (still absorbed in the book open in her hands), the twins John and Barbara, who were both looking down at the toddler Annabel (clutching her toy rabbit as though it would come to life and scamper away at any moment). To the right stood Ellen the maid (looking rather unkempt, as it had been laundry day that day), Mrs. Brill the cook (who appeared grumpy at having been pulled away from her duties in the kitchen), and Robertson Ay (looking as melancholy and forlorn as Jane always remembered him). Jane's eyes skipped over all of these personages quite quickly and went straight to the figure standing at the far right, wearing a smart hat with an even smarter outfit, trim and neat and tidy as ever – their own dear Mary Poppins.
Jane couldn't help but smile as she always did when she let her eyes linger over the form of the most incredible person she'd ever known. It was the only photograph of her former nanny, and even at the time it had been quite a trial convincing Mary Poppins to pose for the picture, which may have accounted for the rather severe expression on her face. Mary Poppins had simultaneously been the most terrifying and the most fantastic person that Jane had met in her one hundred and two years on earth.
She had never hesitated to note how much she missed Mary Poppins.
Jane's thoughts continued to drift as she recovered from the exertion of getting up the stairs, and made her way towards her room. Though she had lost all of the people in the photograph, she felt honored to have known them just the same. Michael had done quite well as a doctor, and had applied the same principles to himself as he had to his patients, which turned out well – he had lived to the very respectable age of ninety-eight. Jane's mouth tightened as she thought of John and Barbara, who hadn't been quite so lucky. Like many households, the Banks family had lost some of their own in the second world war: John (a soldier killed in action) and Barbara (killed in the action of cleaning her kitchen by a German bomb). Though she'd never admit it out loud, she sometimes felt it was probably better that John and Barbara had died within only a week of one another, despite how heart-wrenching it had been for the rest of the family – the twins had never been able to stand being separated from one another long. Annabel had lived a quiet but purposeful life in Cheltenham, and passed away in her sleep aged seventy-two. Mr. and Mrs. Banks passed in much the same way. Jane was the only one left of the group.
But Mary Poppins – there was a mystery. In fact, the whole woman was a mystery. She had disappeared from their lives one day, which wasn't unusual in and of itself since she often had a habit of doing just that, however, she hadn't come back (despite vague promises that she would), and hadn't ever sent as much as a postcard to the children who knew their first heartbreak at her final exit.
For many years, Jane had accepted that losing Mary Poppins was one of the prices one paid for adulthood, like no longer having summer holidays or not having gifts marked 'From Santa' on Christmas morning. However, as she aged and as the tragedies in her life began to weigh upon her, she began to get Curious. After nearly thirty years of living in Nigeria with Henry, with only modest success as farmers and teachers behind them, Jane had returned to London. After getting settled, her next order of business was to spend long days at the public library, poring over obituaries, looking for anyone who might conceivably be Mary Poppins (for, by then, Jane herself was in her sixties, which surely must mean Mary Poppins had passed away by that time). She inquired of her siblings who had been old enough to remember Mary Poppins – had they heard from her? Had they heard anything? Had anyone ever casually run into Bert on their way to the Market or the Park?
But she only ran into dead-ends. She gave it up, because finding Mary Poppins if Mary Poppins did not want to be found was impossible.
The door creaked slightly as Jane entered her room, which had been her nursery many, many decades previous. When she was young, she and Henry had always harbored hopes that one day it would be a nursery again, as they had lived at Cherry Tree Lane for several years after they were married to look after Mrs. Banks. Alas, a child had never appeared and they had decided, along with many other British citizens of the day, to try their luck in Nigeria. It wasn't until old age began creeping upon them that they longed for the London skyline once more.
She sat in a chair by the window and gazed outwards, letting her mind drift back to ancient memories of games, of songs, of play. Having tea on the ceiling. Fearing that she was forever lost in a broken bowl. Mr. and Mrs. Turvy. A million other adventures, large and small, fun or frightening. She smiled to herself; she missed those times…and those people.
Suddenly she was overcome with dizziness once again, her chest tightening and making her eyes bulge. She gripped the armrest of her chair and sucked in a constricted breath between her teeth. If she could have called out for help, she would have. Instead, she sat on the chair, holding onto the armrest with one hand, her other hand on her chest. What a funny day it was!
A stern, quick rapping on her door startled Jane, as such a knock was unlike Abigail, who knocked slowly and gently each time. Before Jane could open her mouth to say 'Who is it?' her door burst open, and on the threshold stood the one person in all the world Jane was the most surprised she could possibly be to see standing there.
Really. If you had asked her one moment before, 'Jane, who would you be the most surprised to see at this exact moment in time?' inevitably her answer would be, 'Why, Mary Poppins of course.'
And yet there she stood, looking no different from when Jane had last seen her several decades before.
Mary Poppins sniffed somewhat disdainfully as she surveyed Jane. "Well," she snapped. "Still in the habit of dawdling by the window, I see."
Jane tried her best not to let her jaw drop. It did, nonetheless: no one gets to tell a one-hundred and two year old jaw what it can and cannot do, you see. "Why – Why – Mary Poppins! As I live and breathe!"
"No one like a Gawking Gabby, Jane," Mary Poppins replied without missing a beat, immediately going to the side of Jane's bed and turning the sheets down. "Spit-spot! Into bed with you!"
Despite it having been many, many years since Mary Poppins had last given Jane a command, her childhood instincts took over and she immediately rose from her chair and shuffled to her bedside without a word. There, she paused and studied Mary Poppins closely. The blue eyes were still piercing. The dark hair was still perfectly combed. "Extraordinary," she breathed. "You haven't changed one iota since last I saw you!"
Mary Poppins seemed unperturbed, neither by Jane's proclamation or Jane's obvious old age, and instead patted the bed. "Must I repeat what I said?" she said in a firm tone.
Jane dutifully climbed into bed, wherein Mary Poppins expertly tucked her in. "Now!" Mary Poppins said brightly. "Isn't that better?"
"But I don't understand," Jane protested. "What are you doing here? How is it that you're here?"
"Such questions!" Mary Poppins exclaimed, as though Jane had asked why one couldn't leap to the moon in a single bound. "I suppose next you'll ask me why the world is round, or why birds fly south in the winter!"
"It's – just unexpected," Jane stammered, feeling that was a very poor response for the situation. She would have sooner believed she could get up and dance the Charleston than believe Mary Poppins would be standing next to her. "I'm – I'm quite old now, Mary Poppins."
Mary Poppins looked struck. "How dare you!" she burst. "You! Old! If you're old, what on earth does that make me, I'd like to know?"
"I would as well," Jane muttered, although Mary Poppins had pretended not to hear and was busy tidying the room. "Why have you come back?"
"Didn't I say I would, Jane?" Mary Poppins replied somewhat testily with her back turned as she rearranged perfume bottles on Jane's dresser. "And have you ever known me to break a promise?"
"No," Jane answered slowly. She supposed that not losing one's mind until one was as old as she was quite a victory in and of itself, and if her head had chosen this moment to go mad, then so be it. Jane found herself smiling. "It is good to see you again, Mary Poppins. I only wish my siblings were still alive, and they could see you too."
"What makes you think I haven't seen them, hm?"
"Well, I can think of one very good reason, and that is that they're all dead. Michael especially would have loved to see you, I'm sure."
"Michael was very glad to see me," Mary Poppins agreed, finally turning back to Jane and smoothing her perfectly-starched lapels proudly. "He was a good boy and already in bed by the time I arrived, unlike someone I know," she said somewhat tersely, eyeing Jane.
Jane frowned. "You – You mean you visited Michael before he – he – " She found that she wasn't able to complete her sentence, but instead tried, "What about Annabel?"
"Such a lovely home she had – although not quite as nice as Number Seventeen, Cherry Tree Lane, for my money. Although this wallpaper is atrocious."
"If there are any more questions, I know someone who will be getting a spoonful of cod liver oil," Mary Poppins warned, and began arranging a stack of magazines neatly on an end table.
Though she was aged, Jane's mind was still quick and spry, and the implications of Mary Poppins' words began to sink in. If it was true – if Mary Poppins had kept her promise to come back – and she visited each sibling to provide comfort and love before their passings, why – that meant –
"Am I dying, Mary Poppins?"
The quiet voice, nearly a whisper, seemed to hang in the air a moment before Mary Poppins turned to Jane, and walked towards her bed slowly. "I'll have none of that sort of talk, young lady," she replied, though her tone was soft and even, so unlike her usual clipped tones, and her sharp blue eyes softened somewhat, staying on Jane just a second longer than was usual. It was all the answer Jane needed.
Mary Poppins began to tenderly fluff the pillows behind Jane's head while Jane persisted softly as tears gathered in her eyes, "John and Barbara. Please. Their deaths – they were not peaceful, and – and I so often wished I'd been there to hold their hand, offer them a quiet word, tell them they were loved, something – anything – "
"Now, now," Mary Poppins said comfortingly, which was surely the first comforting thing she'd ever said to Jane. "No need to worry about that, Jane."
Jane watched her nanny's face carefully as she said the words, and felt a wave of relief wash over her. John and Barbara had not been alone. She was sure of it now. With Mary Poppins somehow near them, even in those dark, terrifying moments, somehow able to reach out to them and guide them through that last phase of life through which all must pass, Jane knew that they could not have been as frightened or alone as she'd always imagined them to be in their last minutes on earth.
"Thank you," Jane whispered, reaching out and grasping Mary Poppins' hand, which was warm and soft in her brittle clutch. "Thank you for that, Mary Poppins. Thank you."
For just a moment, all pretenses dropped between Mary Poppins and Jane, and they seemed to understand one another. For the first time, Jane saw love – limitless love and affection – in her nanny's eyes.
And it was beautiful.
Then, as though Mary Poppins awoke to her usual stern self, she untangled her hands from Jane's grip, stood up straight, and dusted herself off. "This room is in a shocking state, if I do say so, Jane. Whatever sort of help do you have here that keeps this house so deplorably?"
Jane laughed softly, knowing it was only Mary Poppins' way of ending the moment. "Oh dear, whatever shall I do about that?" she said quietly. She turned to the window. "At least it is such a pretty day." The pillows were so soft, and the blankets so warm, that Jane began to feel quite sleepy. She yawned and laid her head back on the pillows, exhaling slowly and relishing the sound of the birds, the comfort of her own bed, the breeze on her cheek, and the soft humming and shuffling of her dearest, oldest friend in the room with her. It had seemed to Jane that never had there been a more perfectly perfect moment than this. "Oh, my," she sighed contentedly, her eyes slowly closing happily. "I do believe I could do with a nap."
An hour later, Abigail ventured upstairs to see if Jane's appetite had returned, and instead found her lying peacefully on the bed underneath her comforters, her wispy hair blowing in the breeze, and a small smile still on her lips – but not a breath of life left in her.
After the ambulance and police left, Abigail slumped down on a chair with a tissue in her hands, thinking of her old friend and the extraordinary life she had lived. She sniffed quietly and held the tissue to her mouth, wishing she had checked on Jane sooner, or been by her side when she'd passed peacefully that afternoon. She stopped and frowned, thinking about the scene. Come to think of it, the room had been tidied, and what's more, Jane had been tucked in. How, exactly, does one tuck oneself in? "How odd," she whispered to herself. If she had looked out the window right at that moment, she might have seen the shadow of a woman with an umbrella passing along as though she were floating. Instead, Abigail shook her head slowly, oblivious to the last goodbye bid to the last Banks child.
"How very, very odd…"