"Odious?" asked Tim. "That's what I called you, Nanny."
"No, not odious. They called you insufferable, Tim. 'The eldest is insufferable,' they said. They couldn't remember your name."
"And us? What did they call us?" the twins asked together.
"Repetitious," Nanny told them. "They said you were repetitious and tedious because they couldn't tell you apart. And your mother said you were greedy because you wanted two sweaters.
"I'm sorry I don't know how to knit, boys," Nanny added apologetically, "or I'd make you another sweater. I do think it would be nice if you each had one."
"Me?" asked Jane in a small voice. "What did they say about me?"
"They forgot you, dear. I was actually quite surprised after they left and I settled in and found four children. They had told me they had three."
"Were you glad?" Jane asked, a little nervously.
Nanny wrinkled her nose. "Well, I was sorry I hadn't asked for a higher salary. I usually charge more for four children.
"But it was lovely to find a little girl," she added. "I do like little girls."
She began to form the cookie dough into balls and dropped them one by one onto a baking sheet. "Would you go on, please, Tim? About the crocodiles?"
Tim turned back to the postcard. But before he began reading again he looked up and said, "That's heinous, Nanny, that they didn't tell you about Jane. They cheated you out of some of your salary. I always knew they were cheaters. Father always tried to shortchange me on my allowance. I had to count carefully every week."
"You got an allowance?" asked Barnaby A with a surprised look. "We never got an allowance!"
"Never!" added Barnaby B.
"What's an allowance?" asked Jane piteously.
"Never mind," Nanny soothed. "That time is past. I believe that we would all benefit, actually, if they were to be eaten by crocodiles. There is a provision in their will that I am to continue taking care of you if tragedy befalls them. And you, of course, would all be rich.
"Homeless, though," she added, "if a buyer comes along and wants the house."
"No one will," Tim said confidently." Here. I'll read this now.
"'The crocodile river was such fun. Two tourists were eaten in huge gulps but it was not sad at all because they were French. Father and I fought the creatures off with our kayak paddles and triumphed. Tomorrow we are taking a helicopter trip over an erupting volcano. We got quite a bargain because the pilot has not completed his training. MUCH more expensive to have an experienced pilot! By the way, when the house is sold and you move elsewhere, would you leave your clothes behind? We will take them to the secondhand shop and get a commission.'"
The four children and Nanny were all silent for a moment. Then Nanny tilted the bowl toward the children.
One by one they scraped the raw dough from the bowl with their fingers and then licked. Nanny herself licked the wooden spoon with which she had stirred. The smell of the baking cookies began to emanate from the oven, fragrant and warm.
"Tim?" said Nanny.
"Will you give me some extra points if I have a very fine suggestion?"
"Well," Tim replied, "I've kind of stopped my point system. I would have given you a whole lot of points for the bowl licking, but I'd forgotten all about the system.
"What's your suggestion, though?" he asked.
"It's somewhat diabolical," Nanny said, guiltily.
"Tell," said all the children together.
"We could find that secondhand shop and sell their clothes," Nanny said.
"We could," agreed Tim, "but not all their clothes. I still need Mother's mink coat, even though it's hot and weighs a ton."
"And I still need Mother's large hat, even though I can't see when it's on my head," said Jane.
"And I still need Father's hat with the sweatband," Barnaby B added, "even though it smells nasty."
"Eventually, when we are quite sure they're gone, we can sell all their clothes," Tim decided.
"Oh," said Jane in an imploring voice," do let's wish for a helicopter-and-volcano disaster!"
They all took a deep breath, closed their eyes, and wished fervently. Then Nanny took the freshly baked cookies from the oven, poured five glasses of milk, and sat down with the children at the table.
13. The Obsequious Postmaster
Far away, in a small village in northwest Switzerland, the postmaster was diligently sorting the incoming mail, as he did every morning. He was a tall, thin man with a jutting chin and large, clumsy hands. His name was Hans-Peter von Schlusseldorf. He lived alone in the village with his dog, Horst, who came with him each morning to work and who now lay snoring on the floor of the tiny post office.
"Ach!" exclaimed the postmaster in frustration as once again he dropped several letters onto the wooden floor. Horst opened one eye, yawned, then rose to his large feet, ambled over, picked up the dropped letters with his mouth, and gave them back to the postmaster.
"Danke," the postmaster said to the dog. He was grateful for the help because it was difficult for him to bend. He had been frozen solid once, years before, while climbing a nearby mountain, and though he had been successfully thawed after his rescue, his joints remained stiff. With the retrieved mail back in his hand, he continued his sorting. The wall behind him was lined with postal boxes—it was where the village inhabitants collected their mail. One by one he added letters to the small boxes.
The tiny bell at the top of the door rang as a woman entered with her little boy. He recognized her because she came each day for her mail, though she rarely received anything except her utility bills and an occasional advertising brochure.
"Guten Tag, Frau—" He began to greet her in his usual friendly fashion, then remembered the language situation. This woman spoke only English. He corrected himself. "I mean, good morning." He glanced toward the box in the "M" section, remembering her initial. But "M" was empty. "No mail for you, I'm afraid, but I have not finished my sorting yet, so perhaps you will wait?"
He hoped she would. He was a bachelor, after all, and this was a lone woman, not unattractive. Tall and thin, like himself. And a little mysterious. Hans-Peter liked mysteries. All he knew about this woman was that she had been buried within a luxurious railroad car for years by an avalanche, with her child, but had survived. He had heard that when the rescuers finally reached her, she was wearing a silk dress, had her hair curled and combed, and was sipping tea while she read a book about whales. Her first words upon the rescue, he had heard, were, "Thank goodness. I have read this book forty-two times and every other one even more often than that."
Feeling that it would be rude not to include her child in his greeting (though in truth he did not much like children), the postmaster turned to the boy and repeated his "good morning."
"He speaks German," the woman said.
The postmaster smiled painfully and said, "Guten Tag," to the boy. His smile was pained because he had heard the boy try to speak what he thought was German. He simply used English words and added extra syllables with a vaguely Germanic sound.
"Helloschlimhofen," the boy said cheerfully. "Neisch day, isn't itzenschlitz?"
Everyone in the village thought it would be rude to point out the flawed German and help the child to learn the language correctly. The Swiss are scrupulously polite. Even the schoolmaster, who taught all the village children, including this strange little boy who had spent his formative years in a buried train car, simply ignored the odd attempt at language. At least the child was good at math.
The woman was looking at the postal boxes somewhat critically. "Your filing system leaves much to be desired. You put an 'S' into the 'C' box—I expect it was a clumsy error. In addition, the envelopes are not aligned well. They should be straightened thusly." She walked briskly behind the counter, removed several letters, lined them up by the corners, tapped them on the countertop to perfect the alignment, and then replaced them in the box.
"I can certainly see the difference, madam," the postmaster said. "Thank you." He did admire the woman's skill with her hands and the quickness with which she was now organizing the boxes. He found himself thinking that he liked her hair as well, the way it fell around her shoulders in soft, luxuriant waves. And her lips! The redness, the moistness, of them!
He turned away, embarrassed at his own thoughts. "Do you need any stamps today, Frau?" he asked. "Or should I call you Mrs.?"
"It's Ms.," she replied. "Or in your language I expect it is, what? Fräulein?" She chuckled slightly and straightened the fingers of her gloves carefully because there was a small wrinkle at one knuckle and wrinkles made her very nervous and fretful.
"It would be Frau," he said politely, almost bowing, "because you are a married woman." His heart almost broke as he said those words. If only—!
"No, Postmaster von Schlusseldorf, I am not," she said.
"I beg your pardon, madam, but for many years I have been mailing off letters, some marked urgent, to Herr Melanoff. Before you were found, I sent the letters from the rescue workers. Some were so sad. I remember a day when they thought they had located you but it proved to be only the rusted remains of a snowplow that was buried back in 1949. Such hopes dashed! 'Disappointing news for her husband,' they told me that day, I remember. I believe it was four years ago."
"Ex-husband," the woman announced in a clipped voice.
Could it be? Dare he hope? The postmaster placed his hand over his heart, which beat nervously under his blue uniform. "I see. Perhaps I misunderstood, madam."
"Darling," she said (and the postmaster's heart leaped, but then he realized it was her son to whom she spoke), "stand up straight so that your trouser lengths are not mismatched. It makes me very nervous when things are not in order."
The boy, who had been sprawled on the floor patting the dog, stood up straight at his mother's command. He was not wearing trousers, exactly, but the postmaster did not want to correct her. The boy was wearing lederhosen, short leather pants that were common among the folk villages of Switzerland. Below the lederhosen, his knees were thin and knobby. High woolen socks encased his lower legs.
"Itz that better, Mutti? Neitz und schtraight?"
"You know I don't speak German, dear," she replied.
"Ach. I forgotzenplunkt. Sorrybrauten," the boy said. "Are my pant legs nice and straight now?"
She examined him and nodded. "Yes. Try to stand with your weight evenly distributed, won't you, dear? And adjust your shirt collar." She then told her son, "I was just explaining to the postmaster that I am no longer married." She glanced toward the counter where Hans-Peter stood.
"After all these years of no reply from my boy's father, dear Herr von Schlusseldorf—and who knows that better than you? such a long-lasting silence from Commander Melanoff!—your kindly Swiss laws have allowed me to resume my single status."