Illustration: Maya E Shakur for FREDERICK & SOPHIE
Location: Cherry-Tree Lane
Some days start neat and normal with not a cloud in the sky. Other days start with winds in the east, mist coming in, like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin. It was on a day like that when Nanny Prim left without a word of warning, and all the silver spoons had gone with her. Sophie’s mom and dad hung an urgent request on the bulletin board of their apartment building. It said, “In search of the best possible nanny for our Sophie, age 6 and three quarters. Should not be afraid of XXL dogs.” The dog in question looked more like a gorilla than an actual dog. Waldorf was the gentlest giant (as most Newfoundland dogs are), but people who preferred small kittens and guinea pigs never really warmed up to his size and slobber.
For as long as she could remember, Sophie had lived right across the park, in a tree-lined street filled with skyscrapers. Sophie’s building wasn’t as high as its neighbors. In fact, it was rather small and narrow. It only had eight floors, nine apartments, and one concierge named Mr. Finch who knew everything about anything and loved the Queen of England.
Sophie liked her apartment because it was on the top floor and had a roof terrace that she shared with her very-best-friend, Frederick, the boy next door who was of the exact same age and whose mom was as busy as her parents. Sophie’s mom was a boss in an office and mostly answered the phone with, “It’s not a good time right now.” Her dad wrote stories on a typewriter and mostly forgot where he was. Frederick’s mom was from Paris, and she called fashion la mode. She had her own magazine and two assistants. None of the parents were home much. Sophie’s mom traveled the world in search of 300% more revenue, her dad visited bookstores in faraway places to check on his books, and Frederick’s mom traveled to see dresses and shoes and bags and talk to designers. But Frederick and Sophie never felt alone because they had each other. And they also had Waldorf who they named Wally.
When Frederick had just moved into the building, he’d asked Sophie why she didn’t look like her parents. Sophie was brown and her parents were white. She had told him that she was adopted. That meant that she had another mom and dad living on an island in a country named Indonesia. She didn’t know what they looked like, and they didn’t know her. They could be secret agents, or they could be frozen in time. “It’s all very mysterious,” Frederick had said.
If the people in the street would have looked up, they would have seen Frederick and Sophie staring through their binoculars, pointing at a squirl in the park. But most people never look up. They prefer to look down at their feet. Most people also never noticed Frederick and Sophie’s small and narrow building, not even when they hurried right by it on their way to get coffees or newspapers or grab a cab right around the corner. Today wasn’t perfectly normal though (see the start of this story). And passersby looked at the strange gentleman dressed in a purple velvet suit jacket, orange pants, and brown leather shoes standing in front of the building’s shiny wooden doors. It wasn’t necessarily his bright colorful outfit that grabbed their attention (this was New York City after all), it was the umbrella that stuck out of his bag. The handle was shaped like a penguin, and they could swear it talked.
“Did you take the box with gingerbread cookies?” the umbrella handle said.
“Of course,” the man in the purple suit replied. “A cookie a day keeps the doctor away.”
Before passersby could take a closer look and check if their eyes had deceived them, the doors of the building flung open, and Mr. Finch welcomed the visitor with a smile. “George!” he shouted happily. “Right on time!”
George pointed at the nanny-ad hanging on the hallway’s bulletin board and said, “Well, that’s settled then.”
Mr. Finch took George’s bag (because that’s what great concierges do) and smiled. “Sophie is in the toy room. This way please.” He led the way to the elevator and pressed the golden button with number 8 on it.
The toy room on the 8th floor was a great place for kids. There were plush monsters and picture books, dolls and a large dollhouse, ride-on race cars and rocking horses, racetracks and trains, pencils and paint, a wooden grand piano and pink and blue guitars, tea sets on tables and soft chairs to sit in. It was meant to be for all the children in the building, but as only two of the nine apartments had a child living in them, the toy room was only used by those two children: Frederick and Sophie. Wally often joined them, and Bou (short for Lila Boubou), the fluffy wardrobe monster only Frederick, Sophie, and Wally could see, also liked to tag along.
As soon as George stepped into the toy room, Frederick and Sophie gazed curiously at the man with thick blonde curls and peering green eyes who made a little hop and bowed right in front of them. “Milady and friend, XXL dog, and wardrobe monster,” George said, “exceptionally responsible manny at your service.”
“You can see Bou?” Sophie asked.
“It would be terribly silly if I didn’t,” George replied.
That made sense to Frederick and Sophie, and even Mr. Finch seemed to nod in agreement.
“I’ll be downstairs if anyone requires my assistance,” the concierge said, placing George’s bag and umbrella on the floor next to a wooden play kitchen.
“I like your umbrella,” Frederick said. The shiny wooden penguin handle had caught his eye.
“And he likes himself ten times more than that,” George snickered.
“Where are you from?” Sophie asked.
“From wherever the wind blew,” George said briefly. And he continued his walk around the toy room. It did not seem like he was going to say any more.
“Oh,” Sophie said. “I see.” But she didn’t, not quite. Neither did Frederick. It didn’t matter though because there was something strange and extraordinary about George. The kids decided it was most exciting in the most wonderful way. They were not given much time to wonder, for George turned to them.
“I feel that we’re on the brink of adventure,” he said as tapped on the blue roof of the toy room’s large white wooden dollhouse. “Come on, chop-chop. Hold hands, jump, and please don’t sneeze. Last time someone jumped and sneezed, he landed right smack-dabble in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. If it wasn’t for a flock of talking flamingoes flying by, he might still be there.”
“I thought flamingoes couldn’t fly,” Sophie said.
“People also say they can’t talk,” George replied, rolling his eyes.
Frederick and Sophie did their utmost best not to sneeze. They closed their eyes, held their breath, and as they jumped, they felt lighter, smaller, and happier.
When they opened their eyes, they stood right in front of Sophie’s dollhouse. But instead of it being small enough for a doll family to live in, it now was as big as a real house. And it stood in a real lane.
“Cherry-Tree Lane,” Frederick said as he read the street sign.
“Why, indeed it is, “George said as he straightened his jacket. The East Wind blew through the naked branches of the cherry-trees in the Lane, making the trees look as though they were dancing.
“Quick, grab a balloon!” George shouted. “They are the best, especially on windy days.”
“What balloon?” As soon as Frederick and Sophie had asked their question, the wind blew a balloon right into their hands. Wally held one in his mouth. Frederick and Sophie’s eyes popped with astonishment as the balloons they held flew them up, up, up.
“Where are we going?” Frederick cried as his feet touched the top of lantern.
“Sky’s the limit,” George shouted. “Don’t they teach kids anything in school these days?”
“I think we must simply enjoy the view,” Sophie said to herself as much as to Wally who was holding onto a yellow heart shaped balloon. And so that’s what they did. In silence.
Because it was all so surprising that Frederick and Sophie could not find a thing to say. But they knew that something practically perfect in every way… had happened today.