Mary P : A Memoir
Do you know magic when you see it?
The world's most competent nanny reminisces about the whys and hows of her days at No. 17, Cherry Tree Lane.
A/N: Almost everything belongs to J K Rowling and P L Travers. Please do not sue me or haunt me. Further thanks are due to Tabithatibi for casting a beta-ing eye over this.
Dedicated to Nan, in loving memory of lemon cake and common sense.
I have always been somewhat of an eccentric. Looking back now from my old age, as I start to pen these memoirs, I can see that such eccentricity has been a feature of my character almost from babyhood, and was certainly well established by the time I, aged four, caused a family-wide upset by insisting on riding in a muggle donkey cart on Scarborough beach. From this point on began my sustained and active interest in muggles; an interest about which it would be an understatement to say that my family were not best pleased. There was even some concern voiced that it would prevent me from entering Slytherin, as a proper member of our family must. However, on my arrival at Hogwarts aged eleven, the Sorting Hat showed far less scruple and, I believe, far more common sense than my parents. Merely remarking that I had an unusual ambition, it admitted me without a qualm to the House of our forefathers.
My House, or at least its other occupants, approved of my interest little more than my parents had. Muggle-born wizards were bad enough – for a few hardy souls of such ancestry penetrated Slytherin in those days, to lurk unspeaking and unspoken to in the darkest corners – but as for common Muggles! A slight awareness of them might be regrettably necessary; a young and ambitious wizard aiming to fly high in the Ministry might need to know enough to pass among them without violating the International Statute of Secrecy; but to be curious about them for their own sake was simply not the thing!
But was a Slytherin ever deterred by discouragement or disapproval? Perhaps; yet since I did not come of a family given to putting their hands to the broom and then looking back, I was not. In time, my Housemates ceased to argue or mock. While never accepting my 'Gryffindor-like" curiosity, they came to preserve a tolerating silence.
My family was different. Many and varied were the vain arguments flung in my path, all of them boiling down to the simple fear that I would disgrace the name of the noble and most ancient house of – but here I see I must offer you an explanation. The issue of duty to one's family has been tragically much abused in late years, but to those of us who were raised in the ways of sensible responsibility to one's family and the ancient name which unites us, it is a way of life, a lesson which never leaves us. My family, from my parents to my brothers and distant second cousins, may all, and indeed have, disagreed with my path in life, but the fact remains that in taking my own path, I took a corresponding duty of privacy towards them, that they need not be affected in any way by what I have done. Therefore, in these pages I must continue to maintain the anonymity I have observed in the deeds recorded therein, and pass over the specifics of names. I beg you will excuse this, and hope that you will try to understand the familial love which motivates it.
Such understanding can be hard in youth. Certainly, as a young witch just out of Hogwarts I found myself repeatedly frustrated and even angered by those close to me who tried, lovingly I am now sure, to steer me towards more 'acceptable' interests. I would not be steered, found myself bored almost to tears by the idea of the normal social round of dances and 'at-homes,' all with the spectre of a 'respectable' marriage waiting in the wings. But, they were my family. And so, despite being of age and therefore independent, I sought to accommodate the kindly motives behind their wishes, and tried for a while to channel my curiosity within strictly magical spheres.
Transfiguration, my most pleasurable subject at school, offered various possibilities for such escape. I studied, researched, and became a moderately contented member of the International Society for Inter-Species Transfiguration (ISIST). There is a certain undefinable relief from the petty boredoms of upper-class society to be had in turning oneself into a cat or a hippopotamus, although I was never proficient enough to join the exalted ranks of those members who had become animagi.
Yet my efforts to be conventional, or at least conventionally eccentric, were never truly fulfilling. Try as I might, all paths seemed to lead back and back to muggles. Many of my new friends in the ISIST were muggle-born, while even those of magical extraction tended towards the far more eccentric than I, which had largely resulted in them living or working in much closer proximity to muggles than I had ever known before. We held branch meetings in muggle towns, talked in muggle cafés, and conversations as frequently ended up in explanations of steam engines and Bradshaw's European Railway Guide as discussing cross-species switching.
But such fascinating details were not all. The more I saw of my friends' confident integration into the muggle world, the more I began to wonder if the isolationist approach of mainstream magical society was really wisest. The doctrine of avoidance, complete and utter separation of magical from muggle, is drummed into our people from the earliest age. But that leaves us skulking, almost living in hiding, and ignorance breeds fear. As a member of upper-class magical society, I knew many sane and sensible witches of my generation and older. They were perfectly calm and capable of handling any magical pest including marauding dragons, but lived in actual fear of the muggles, the wandless, magic-less muggles, who were their neighbours.
The other mainstream approach to muggles, as epitomised by Cousin Elladora (three times removed but not nearly far enough, as my father used to say), I tried not to think about, although I had an idea that it may well have been fuelled by the fear from the retreatist approach. Neither example seemed to contradict my view that they were hopelessly flawed.
Nor was the opposite side of the Galleon any better. The muggle world was left with only the fearful folk memory of those witches and wizards who, for our own sake let alone that of our neighbours, should have been locked up long ago. To take but one historical example: if common sense had been applied in the case of Baba Yaga, given her history to that point with muggle children, Durmstrang would have been spared the hideous blot upon its chronicles of having its first and only headmistress arrested and summarily convicted, after six months in the post, of murdering and eating five of its students.
Study dragons, the proverb warns, and you may breathe fire. The more I observed of the muggle world, the more I became convinced that it would be possible for magical and muggle to co-exist safely. To my family, my acquaintances, my entire world, the idea was unthinkable, illegal, and impossible, for muggles were not like us! In vain did I point out the Statute of Secrecy simply forbids the muggles knowing about magic. It says nothing about using it where they don't notice it, or the muggle repelling charms on the Leaky Cauldron would be illegal. As for muggles being unlike us, my experience had found them no different to wizard-kind, and in many cases more tolerant. The Ministry Department for Magical Transport was extremely rude when I wished to book an international portkey to a muggle area of Paris, for an ISIST meeting. By contrast, when I got flustered ordering a muggle taxi to "Purge & Dowse" instead of St. Mungo's, the cabby merely said "Takes yer time naow, Judy."
The actual problem, I came to see, was that the idea was unproven. Such is the way with new ideas. After all, the Society for the Conservation of the Golden Snidget existed to dash its wands against the rock of the International Quidditch Authorities for many years, before Bowman Wright forged the first golden Snitch in Godric's Hollow. The finding of an alternative had been dismissed again and again as impossible, for how could the ability of the Snidget to indicate who had caught it be replicated? Nowadays, who would dream of using anything as unreliable, even at the most minor levels of the sport?
The same, therefore, for our relations with muggles. Our society stood blinded by the status quo, however flawed, and the few examples of my muggle-integrated friends from the ISIST were far too eccentric to have any real weight. What was needed was someone respectable, someone from a well-placed, pure-blood family, to demonstrate a legal yet magical existence among muggles – and I was nothing loath to volunteer myself.
This may sound like hasty self-interest, but on the contrary, I gave the matter deep and considerable thought. Would I disgrace our noble and most ancient name? Indeed no, for that was the whole point of my theory. I was not suggesting boundless openness between muggle and magical, merely a thoughtful integration. And so my own trial of it must be even more thoughtful, careful, restrained. Assured on that point, I began to plan.
The key element was that I must live actually with the muggles, not merely as a neighbour. This could have been most simply achieved by finding a position as a boarder – but I was not unobservant of the fact that those muggles who take in boarders are generally from the lower strata of their society. I, a well-bred witch, did not wish to sink to such levels. Besides, as a boarder, I should be the one to be the subject of observation, constantly having to watch myself against a barrage of ill-bred curiosity. No, I required some place in which I could observe, while unobserved. Given the way that we do not notice our house-elves, it seemed obvious that the equivalent position in a muggle household was what I was looking for.
Honesty compelled me to admit that I was too old to pass for a house-maid, the direct substitute of an elf, unless I wished to spend hours troubling with physical transfigurations and anti-aging potions. Neither was I merely seeking to prove my theory, or satisfy my curiosity. Since I would be, effectively, using my chosen muggle household as guinea pigs, it seemed only fair that I should endeavour to do them some genuine good with my magic in return for their unknowing assistance. In the position of a house-maid, such opportunities would be limited.
Perhaps I would be better employed as a cook? A well regulated kitchen is, after all, the principle key to domestic harmony, but I had hoped to do more for the muggles than improve their digestion, and to learn more than a selection of new recipes. In the sphere of domestic service suited to my age, there seemed to remain only the position of Housekeeper, yet I feared I would not know enough of muggle ways to successfully fulfil that post.
It was a chance sentence in my wider reading of any muggle books I could lay my hands on that solved this impasse. In a frothy romantic novel (did I not need to know how the entire of muggle society worked in order to live in it?) the cook remarked derisively of the governess: 'Neither drawing room nor kitchen, if you get what I mean.'
I did! To belong to the household, and yet be apart from them. To be expected to mingle neither with the other staff, nor the family themselves. To have a position of significance, influence and importance, without having to manage other servants. And as an added bonus, to spend one's working hours among children, who are generally far more credulous and less hostile to eccentricity than their elders. That should be my line of service!
The only minor question was whether I should aim for the post of a governess, or that of a nanny. The advantages and disadvantages of both were considerable; in the end I decided that I would just have to take whatever position first opened, conditional on all other aspects being favourable. I did lean slightly towards the idea of a nanny, so long as very small babies were not involved, as I doubted my NEWTs in Transfiguration, Charms and such forth would be of much relevance if it came to teaching algebra or latin.
My next move, therefore, lay in the 'Situations Vacant' section of a muggle newspaper. I expanded my eccentricity to include a daily subscription to 'The Times' and 'The Telegraph', whose picturesque names appealed to me, and dedicated the waiting days to detailed observations and the consideration of names. Leaving aside any issue of anonymity, my own name was patently unsuitable for living as a muggle among muggles. Whether I was to be Miss Such-and-such the governess or Nanny Dear, I required a simple, respectable, perfectly acceptable name. And yet I did not want to sink to joining the soulless masses of Smith or Jones. The matter absorbed me, and I must have been taken for a muggle eccentric in various public libraries, poring over old newspapers, the telephone directory and Burke's Peerage, before I finally settled on the idea of retaining something of myself by using my own initials. 'M' – what could be a more normal muggle name than Mary? 'P' – well, Poppins was my own invention, but based on research it seemed passable, combining practicality for pronunciation by small children with a degree of distinction.
Such a recital of the logical steps I took in my preparations may, I fear, seem somewhat pedantic. But it seems important to me that you should understand, appreciate the full grounding behind the events I am about to relate. Furthermore, to omit my reasoning would be to pass over the months of thought and consideration it took, and so give an incomplete picture. Introductions are, after all, to introduce and set the scene. And finally, in perusing these pages I must ask you to remember that both I and my accustomed style of dictation are much older than you, who belong to the generations which have grown up under the shadow of the two Great British Wizarding Wars, now so happily ended. The events which I recount happened in an era many people would now call long ago, in the days of your great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, or even great-great-great-grandparents if you are younger.
But that is enough of introductions. I must now bend my memory to the recalling of the exact events of what I have always thought of as my Great Adventure.