Mary Poppins Had Nothing on Nanny

I am sure we should have appreciated Percy more than we did. But at least my older brother didn't bite her as he had the cook.

I asked him about that infamous episode not so long ago. Was it true? (It had occurred before I was born.)

Oh, yes, it was true. He cannot have been more than 4. She was a tease and large with it. She delighted in blocking his way. He wanted to come down the front stairs. She dammed his flow. So he tried to come down the back. Once again, a massive roadblock of culinary origin confronted him. This went back and forth until, exasperated, brother Trevor (once again attempting egress at the foot of the back stairs) took retaliatory action.

It was, I believe, in the calf area. Surprisingly, he did not become a vegetarian.

I came along with the war, more or less.

By then things had begun to change. The tennis court had become a chicken run. Black-out blinds were on the windows. The cook was nowhere to be seen.

In fact, I do not remember our ever having a cook. Cooks, in those houses fortunate or pretentious enough to have had them, now belonged to the pre-war world. I have no idea what happened to ours (maybe she had given her notice soon after the fraternal teeth). Anyway, I like to fancy her, rather jovial and with a Band-Aid on her calf, serving tin mugs of NAAFI tea laced with condensed milk to an entire tank regiment or a couple of Spitfire squadrons.

Children can be extremely unquestioning. I suppose I did go through that phase when every sentence uttered is an interrogative prefaced by "Why...?" But I am sure I never thought to ask "Why do we not have a cook?" It would not have occurred to me that we needed one. My mother did the cooking. My mother - and Percy. And, in spite of rationing, they did a splendiferous job. Percy's Yorkshire puddings had the style of an expert, to the manner born.

Another question I would never have thought of asking (for example) was "Why Percy?" She simply existed. She was there, this sturdy soul with sturdy arms, this know-all.

Her name was no enigma to me. I simply knew from birth that her real name was Nurse Barton, but that we called her Percy because my ever-inventive older brother had one day called her Nursey-Percy, Nursey-Percy, and Percy she was. Forever.

And she attached herself adhesively to us. Like a nurse in a Chekhov play, she seemed part of the family, and still around, still making Yorkshire puddings, still knowing it all, still helping and infuriating my mother, even when I was in my 20s.

Actually, she never lived with us all the time. There were periods when she was away, helping to look after some other family. We would hear about these other people, and most of all about their children, who were always presented as models of cleanliness, virtue, originality, and delightfulness. She may not have intended it to be so, but the implications were perfectly clear: These other children were much better in every way than we could ever be.

Percy always knew best. I suppose that if she hadn't, she would have lost her self-respect somehow. No danger of that! Her self-respect was undaunted and undinted. No matter that I had learned at school, say, that ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand and that lemmings are not authentically suicidal. If Percy knew otherwise, then otherwise was fact, and no amount of evidence or authority was going to change her opinion. She knew.

Three other things - no, four - come partially back to memory about Percy. One was that her hair was always pinned up with a mind-boggling number of long, wiry hairpins. As a small child, I was sometimes allowed to watch her remove all these pins so she could brush her hair. I could never credit how long it was.

A second thing was her one memorized Shakespearean speech. I write it down here as I recall her saying it. Without checking, I cannot be sure it is exact: "The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Pon the place beneath/ Tis twice blest/ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes ..." and so on, relentlessly, Portia in full flood, to the bitter end.

It was a performance, this, and she would use it to keep her young, over-educated charges in their place. "You think you know all about Shakespeare then? Let me tell you: 'The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Pon the place....' " Oh Percy! Oh mercy!

THE third thing was - I wish I could remember it all, but I can't - a kind of count-up she knew of gloriously nonsensical tongue-twisters. I think it went all the way to 10 or 12. It began:

"ONE old ox opening oysters.

"TWO toads totally tired trying to trot to Tisbury.

"THREE...." I can't remember three. I wish I could.

The fourth Percy recollection is an event. My brother and I were in the attic playing darts. The attic was wonderfully remote in the Victorian house we lived in then. It was sufficiently far away from the adult world two floors below, to give us a sense of great independence.

On this day, the adults had been calling us down to lunch until they were hoarse. We had been making too much noise to hear them, and in the end poor Percy came all the way upstairs to tell us.

"I'll show you how to play darts!" she said. "You think you're good? Give me the darts. Come on, I'll show you how!"

I handed her the three feathered darts.

"Where do I stand?"

We showed her.

"How do I hold them?"

We showed her.

She took a breath. "Right," she said firmly. And then, quite suddenly, she let fly the first dart.

We - who after endless hours of practice thought we were getting quite proficient - watched the passage of the Percy-dart, fully confident that it would ricochet off the ceiling, clatter down the stairs, or land with a scudder on the ropey carpet.

We wore superior smiles.

But it not only hit the bull's eye, it stuck right in the very dead center of the bull's eye.

For a split instant, Percy looked as flabbergasted as we did. But just as quickly she smothered this unguarded give-away. Instead, she looked - well, she looked incredibly knowing.

"There," she said, "that's how you do it. Now, boys - lunch!"

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