- Chapter 1.
How It All
- ONCE UPON A TIME - many yesterdays
before yesterday - there was a young girl called Teak. She was
almost seven years old, sturdy but small for her age. Her hair was
the color of wheat, and always looked as if the wind had tousled
it, no matter how hard it was brushed. She had thoughtful brown
eyes, and no wonder, since already she had seen so many different
places and people. If she seemed a rather unusual girl, it wasn't
because she looked different, but because she lived a rather
unusual life. And these were the reasons:
- First, although Teak had a nice
father and a beautiful mother, she saw very little of them,
because they were always having to go somewhere else - and this
meant having to say a great many good-byes. Second, she had no
brothers or sisters. Third, although her family was American, they
lived abroad and always stayed in hotels. Teak could not remember
ever having lived in a home, a real house, that is, with a kitchen
that had a potted geranium in the window and a real stove with a
kettle on it, hot and steaming - a house where you could have your
very own room, your very own bed, your very own pillow, and books
and toys and lots of boy stuff like cars to go MOM (She secretly
wished she had been born a boy because it was her observation that
boys had a lot more freedom and, therefore, more fun.) Lastly,
Teak had no friends to play with. Not that she couldn't make
friends, but she was always traveling from one place to another
all over the world, so she always had to say good-bye to the ones
she did meet. Just the sight of an open suitcase on a bed gave her
a lumpy feeling in her middle. Another good-bye would be looming.
- No, Teak was not a gypsy, though
she had met a few.
- She didn't travel with a circus,
though she often wished that she could. (She was torn between
being the lion tamer or a flying-trapeze artist.)
- Nor was she the daughter of an army
officer or a diplomat. Her father, whose name was Thaddeus King,
Junior, was a very important businessman, a Vice-President for
Overseas for a big company in the U.S.A. This explained all that
traveling. It also explained Teak's name, for her real name was
Thaddea King, TK for short.
- Her mother's name was Birdie, and
she was a writer. Sometimes Teak would see her stories in
magazines; there would be pictures and the words "by Birdie King"
under the tide.
- Often the hotels they stayed in
were huge and fancy ones with long, long carpets down long quiet
halls, and lifts - that's what the elevators were called that were
like open brass cages. These were run by elevator boys in
brass-buttoned uniforms and pillbox hats. If they were friendly
they would letTeak push the buttons for the required floors.
Sometimes Teak would not take the lift, but would race it instead,
flying up or down the carpeted stairs to arrive red-faced and
panting and triumphant when she won, which she usually did. Nanny
did not approve.
- On other trips, the family might
stay in small and quaint inns tucked in the mountains or
overlooking the sea, or they might stay in in-between-size hotels
called pensions (pronounced funny, like "ponsy-ons"). Wherever
they stayed, Mother and Daddy would settle into their room, get
out their portable typewriters, and start pecking away at them
furiously. A little bell would sound when one of them came to the
end of a line. Ping, and then another ping, never two pings at
once. Teak would stand quietly and hopefully at the door, but
usually her mother would put her finger to her lips and say,
"Ssshh!" and Teak would have to trudge back to her room or go to
- Which brings us to Nanny. Teak's
parents couldn't possibly find baby-sitters everywhere they went,
so Nanny had been hired to take care of her. She was a fixture in
the family, the one person Teak never had to say good-bye to. She
was British, hearty, and roly-poly, with red cheeks and blue eyes
- and she had a grip of iron. She was older than Mother and both
kind and strict - very strict. But Teak felt safe with her and
knew she was fortunate to have her.
- There were only a few things wrong
with Nanny, but they were not really her fault: She was not
another child, and she had no imagination, which meant you
couldn't talk to her about ideas or ask her important questions
like "Who invented time?" or "What do cows think about?" or "Who
decided the first Tuesday?" or even simple ones like "How many
grains of sand are there in the world?" or "How many times have
you breathed in and out in your life?" Teak's mother was better at
those kinds of questions.
- Since Nanny was old, she couldn't
bend in the middle very well or walk fast in the park or at the
zoo, so there were strict rules about not disappearing around
corners. Teak would run in circles around her as second best, but
she always felt as if she lived with her brakes on. Also, Nanny
seemed to be devoted to only two great causes, keeping spotless
and good manners, neither of which stood anywhere near the top of
Teak's own list. To be sure, she was always squeaky clean herself
in blue or white starched uniforms, and she was respectful to
Teak's parents, saying "yes, sir," or "No, madam." She wore her
grey hair up with a bun on top, which Teak sometimes thought made
her look like a sea lion with a cow patty on her head. She knew
this was probably a naughty thought, but she didn't mean it
- Of course, Teak herself had no idea
how hard it was for Nanny - how very hard it was for her to climb
up on a camel in Egypt or to rush into the waves at the beach on
the Riviera to keep an eye on her charge. Teak had no thought that
Nanny might be lonely too, or that she might ever be tired or have
a headache or wish that she could wear a red dress with flowers on
it. Nor did Teak realize that she was the apple of Nanny's eye,
that Nanny secretly loved her to pieces though she felt she had no
right to. To Teak, Nanny was just tbere.
- So Teak's world was mostly filled
with grown-ups. They might look down at her and see only a small
girl in short smocked cotton dresses and matching bloomers, with
scuffed red knees and a determined look about her, but she saw
them as equals, only bigger and more powerful. Well, to be sure,
they didn't chew their fingernails.
- One of the problems of traveling so
much was that everything you owned had to fit into suitcases, so
she had hardly any playthings or picture books. Teak had to use
her imagination a lot. The first thing she would do in a new hotel
room was open the doors of the large mahogany wardrobe, which
somehow always had the same varnishy smell but nevertheless had to
be checked for monsters. Also under the bed. And under the covers,
in case of stray reptiles. Each room had a night table next to the
bed with a big china potty in it, and each room had its own
washbasin, though the pensions sometimes only had a big china
basin and a big pitcher of water. (Teak was always interested in
waterworks.) Then, if Nanny was not around, she would climb onto
the bed and jump and jump or, if it was a puffy featherbed, she
might climb up the headboard and swandive into it. Kerplopf! It
was a delicious feeling, but only to be done at night.
- Teak also had a secret family of
very small paper cutouts that she had drawn herself They were a
German family, and their names were the Pumpernickels. There were
four of them, for Herr and Frau Pumpernickel had been blessed with
two children, a girl, Brigitta, and a boy, Hans-Peter. They lived
and traveled in an old tortoiseshell cigarette box that had been
Teak's father's. Teak would spend long hours lying on her stomach,
listening to the imaginary troubles and squabbles of this family.
Nanny tolerated and maybe even enjoyed this game, often listening
in while she knitted in a corner.
- A balloon was a special treat. Teak
could lie on her back and throw it, catch it with her feet, and
throw it back, over and over. It often was tiresome, though, to be
alone. But there certainly was lots of time to think, and thinking
was what Teak did best.
- On this particular day, Teak and
Nanny were alone at the Hotel Galilee in Paris. The previous day,
Teak's mother had received a telegram from her father. It came in
a folded yellow paper with tickertape pasted on it and said - all
in capital letters
- ARRIVING ROME EIGHTEENTH
- BRING DROMEDARY BOTH
- DRAGON STATION STOP JOIN
- FLORA FRIDAY STOP TEAK
NANNY TO FOL
- LOW SOON STOP LOVE REGARDS
- Translated, Teak knew this meant
that her mother was to catch the train to Rome, taking her trunk,
called Dromedary because it was bought in Egypt and humped when it
was full, and Daddy's two suitcases, the Turkeys, but she was to
check their trunk, the Dragon, at the Gare du Nord in Paris for
Nanny and Teak to pick up when they joined them. Each piece of
luggage was given a name. Teak had a small leather case they
called the Fiumerol (because it came from Fiume in Italy) and a
leather pouch on a strap called the Spy Bag, in which she kept her
very special treasures.
- So Mother had left once again,
kissing Teak in a hurried way, promising a reunion in Rome
sometime soon. Teak had fought back her tears of disappointment
while Birdie and Nanny consulted over her head. It was always
nicer when Mother was around.
- The Hotel Galilee was a pension
with high ceilings and tall windows now flecked with raindrops,
which meant Teak and Nanny were stuck indoors with nothing to do.
In those days, there were no radios or televisions. Usually Teak
found watching people the most entertaining thing she could think
of, but looking at Nanny mending her stockings, squinting in the
poor light, did not amuse Teak. She was bored and out of sorts.
- She would have enjoyed talking to
her very old friend, Mr. Rathbone, who had white whiskers and was
very good at answering questions, but he was in Vevey in
Switzerland. Mr. Rathbone had once suggested that what Teak needed
was an encyclopedia, which Teak wrote down and brought to her
parents' attention, but they said no. Encyclopedias came in
twenty-six volumes and where would she pack them?
- Teak almost wished her redheaded
cousins, Jessie and Justin, would turn up. They were twins, just
her age, and the children of Uncle Amyas King, her father's older
brother and Aunt Bessie MacLean, who was also a redhead and verry,
verry Scottish. (You weren't ever supposed to say Scotch!)
Whenever Jessie and Justin appeared, Teak's world was turned
- It was still raining when it was
time for lunch. Teak wasn't a bit hungry, but she and Nanny went
down to the dining room and sat at the table for two. She rolled
breadcrumbs, fiddled with the salt and pepper shakers, and kicked
her chair rungs and sulked. Nanny was cross and even crosser when
Teak made a face at the brussels sprouts. However, by this time
the rain seemed to have stopped, and the sun began to shine
weakly, so Nanny bargained a trip to the park for three brussels
sprouts down the hatch. The deal was made.
- Paris was actually one of the
places Teak liked. The hotel was close to the Champs
Elysées headed by the great Arc de Triomphe, where the
eternal flame burned to the French Unknown Soldier. She liked the
big toy store with scooters and trucks in the window. She secretly
loved the small park with the merry-go-round, and the Guignol, the
Punch and Judy puppet show, where husband and wife whacked each
other over the head with big sticks. And going to the park meant
thatTeak could try out the new wooden hoop and stick that the
concierge, the nice lady in black at the front desk, had given her
to use while they were staying in the hotel. The hoop belonged to
the concierge's children, but they had gotten too old to play with
it, so it was now kept in a broom closet for use by special young
guests. Teak wanted one of her very own, but how could you fit it
in a suitcase?
- Now Teak could hardly wait. She
might even get bread and chocolate for her snack, or gouter
("goo-tay," as the French children said). She raced up the stairs,
leaving Nanny to struggle up behind her.
- "Teak!" Nanny called. "Wait for me.
Don't you dare try going down these stairs with that hoop! Do you
hear me? You could fall and break your neck."
- Teak sighed impatiently. Nanny was
always saying things like that. It made her feel like a baby. She
knew perfectly well that she could carry a stupid old hoop down
the stairs. Anybody could carry a stupid old hoop down the stupid
old stairs. She would show Nanny, and that would be that.
- Well, that was that all right.
Somehow, in switching the stupid old hoop and stick from hand to
hand, the hoop got tangled with Teak's stupid feet, and before she
knew it, she was somersaulting down a flight of stairs after the
hoop, which had shot away and was bounding down the steps five at
a time. Teak wound up on her head on a landing, and by the time
the concierge had come flying up from below with cries of alarm
and Nanny had come puffing down from above with cries of dismay,
she had a huge bump on her forehead - a real goose egg. She tried
hard not to cry, but it really hurt!
- What a fuss and feathers! The
concierge clucked and kept exclaiming, "0 la pauvre petite! Ze
poor leetle girl!" Then she rushed off to get an ice pack. Nanny
was not so sympathetic. She dragged Teak back up to her room with
a chorus of "I-told-you-so!" and announced decisively, "And no
park for naughty, disobedient girls!" Then it was off with her
dress and on with her dressing gown and into bed for a rest, the
final insult for a seven-year-old. Bustling about, Nanny puffed
the heavy draperies, closing out the now beautiful sunny afternoon
and the smell of chestnut blossoms. Teak was to lie there stiff
and hold that ice pack to her forehead or else. After reminding
her several more times how lucky she was not to have broken her
neck, Nanny slammed the door shut. Bam!
- Teak couldn't help it. She could
feel the big hot tears streaming down both sides of her face. If
only her mother were here! If only, if only!