“Right mum, we’re off,” said Dylan.
“You be careful now. Have you got lunch and all you need?” asked his mum.
“Of course we’ve got everything. I’m not five, I’m almost eleven!” replied Dylan.
“I know you are but there are still things you need to careful of. There are snakes, giant wasps, eels, water scorpions; even some of the plants are deadly. Whatever you do don’t eat anything. You could die if you do. Watch out for ‘Deadly Nightshade’, there’s enough poison in one of them to kill 500 mice!” she explained.
“But we’re not MICE!” exclaimed Dylan.
“We know Auntie Joy, and we will be careful. We’ll be back for seven. Don’t worry. We’re not going too far” said Danny.
“Remember, you can drown in an inch of water. Just take care of each other” said Joy, concerned.
As long as they could remember Dylan and Danny had always spent their summer holidays together. They were cousins. Their mums were sisters whose husbands had decided to buy a run down farm house in south west France. Every year the families spent their entire summer holidays on a building site. The Dad’s, Bob and Bill, worked relentlessly: mixing concrete; building walls; fitting toilets; laying floors and roofing. You name it, they did it. The Mum’s, Joy and Molly, worked tirelessly as well. In fact what ever the men did they did, apart from digging drains as that was “Men’s work”. This left their children free every day to do exactly what they wanted. Of course they did have jobs, but once these were done they were free to explore the fields and woods that surrounded the farm.
It was late morning and the sun was high in the cloudless sky beating out a relentless heat. The farm was quiet. Most of the birds were sheltering from the sun apart from the swallows that shot through the sky, performing aerobatics the worlds best pilots would be jealous of. The boys set off on their bikes, along the dusty road that ran behind the farm, down to the lanes. There were two lanes – one was short; the other long and that was their names: The Long and Short lane. When they were younger the short lane was as far as they went. It ended abruptly, turning into a cow field. The long lane, however, was a different story altogether. The first straight of the long lane was longer than the short lane. After that it meandered through the countryside, with other lanes coming off it. It seemed to have no end. There were always new places to discover, new dens to build. Dylan and Danny were seasoned explorers and had abandoned the overgrown tracks. They now explored the area by water.
That day they were investigating a new stream they had discovered by chance the previous day. It was at the bottom of a corn field. The water was crystal clear and full of life. Danny had discovered the stream whilst stalking a coypu. The giant rat had bolted across the field and into the thick undergrowth that concealed the waterway. It was like discovering a seam of diamonds! It glistened and shimmered in the July sun, the ripples dancing in the light.
The boys sped along the lane, on their bikes, creating dust clouds which billowed out behind them. Arriving at the corn field, they hurriedly dropped their bikes, and set off on foot towards the hidden stream.
“I hope we find some dragon fly larvae today,” said Dylan.
“They can eat fish you know,” replied Danny.
“Don’t I know it! They quite like human too. Last time I caught one it had a go at my finger!” said Dylan with disbelief.
“What do you want to find more of them for then?” asked Danny.
“I want to put them in the stream nearer the house, so that we will have more dragon flies buzzing around. You know, the really big ones,” replied Dylan frankly.
“Good idea. We could take some crayfish back with us too,” suggested Danny.
“If there are any,” muttered Dylan.
In front of the boys was a giant elder, its branches reaching for the azure sky. The tree was laden with fruits, its boughs straining under the weight. The clusters of berries formed small parasols that swayed in the warm breeze, providing the boys with much needed shade. At the base of the tree ran the stream. The boys approached it in silence as not to disturb any wildlife. As the stream came into view they heard the distinctive sound of frogs leaping into the water. It mystified them how these amphibians could sense their approach.
Dylan and Danny had stopped wearing welly boots when exploring water courses. They were not comfortable when cycling and they never came up high enough. Far too many adventures had been cut short because of waterlogged feet. The boys now wore plastic sandals which were perfect. These incredible inventions were virtually indestructible. It did mean that you felt all the living creatures in the stream but this just added to the experience.
They set off up river, following the ditch around the edge of the field. As they waded they fished with Jam jars and nets made from old tights and badminton rackets, scraping the bed for hidden tit-bits. The harvest was bountiful. They caught stone loaches, minnows, sticklebacks, tadpoles, whirly gig beetles, great diving beetles and thousands of fresh water shrimps. However, they found no dragon fly larvae and no trace of crayfish.
As they traveled through the undergrowth, it became thicker and denser. No longer could they see either bank. Brambles and bushes, rushes and reeds hid the sides. The stream appeared to be narrowing. It was being slowly choked by the ever encroaching vegetation. The going got tougher and the boys were now struggling, carefully weaving their way through brambles as thick as your arm; nettles the size of cows and reeds that were like razors. They were thinking of turning back when they spied a sharp turn in the stream ahead.
“That looks interesting,” commented Dylan, “we’ll have lunch when we get there.”
“Good idea, I’m starving!” said Danny enthusiastically.
The boys were amazed at what they found. As they turned the corner, the vegetation opened up to show a waterfall complete with plunge pool. The water cascaded down rocks coated with mosses into a pool that must have been the size of a small car. Towards the shore were large boulders, surrounded by reeds. All around the pool were low shrubs covered with deep red berries and purple and yellow flowers. In the shallows they could see fish and eels darting and writhing between the rocks and reeds.
“What a superb spot for lunch!” exclaimed Danny.
“Let’s climb up on to the top and have our lunch up looking over the pool,” suggested Dylan.
The way to the top was difficult. The boys had to claw their way through the undergrowth. They were, however, driven by hunger and ploughed on through, tearing off branches and ripping their way between the small trees. Finally they reached the summit. The view from the lip of the waterfall was breathtaking. They could see the whole pool and could make out giant rocks on the bed. In the deep they could make out the shadows and silhouettes of giant eels, much bigger than either had ever seen.
That sat down on the edge dangling the feet watching the beasts lurking in the deep. They got out their lunch and started eating. It was like they hadn’t eaten in weeks, the hot sun and mornings adventures had definitely helped work up an appetite.
After their lunch of cheese and tomato sandwiches and crisps, they sat chatting soaking in the atmosphere.
“This place is the coolest!” said Danny.
“I reckon you could swim in there. It’s big enough,” enthused Dylan.
“Those eels look dangerous though,” said Danny with concern.
“Yes I agree. You wouldn’t take your shoes off would you! Those trees, do you know what they are?” asked Dylan, gesturing towards the small trees that surrounded the pool.
“Which ones?” asked Danny.
“Those with the bright red berries and yellow and purple flowers,” said Dylan. As he spoke he saw Danny’s face change. He suddenly looked very worried.
“I think we could be in trouble,” said Danny.
At that moment Dylan remembered his mum’s words to him earlier that day.
“Deadly Nightshade…But we’ve touched it!” he yelled.
“Not only have we touched it, but we’ve also just eaten. All the poison on our hands has been transferred to our food which is now inside us,” said Danny.
“We’ll be dead in minutes!” panicked Dylan.
“I don’t think it works that quickly. We’ve got at least a few hours, maybe a day,” said Danny trying to ease Dylan’s fears.
The boys’ world suddenly started falling down around them.
“I’ll never start secondary school,” said Dylan.
“I’ll never see Joe Parsons in year 8 again. She’s lush!” replied Danny.
“What are you worrying about girls for? We’re going to DIE!” screamed Dylan.
“Calm down. Right we need to think. What are we going to do?” asked Danny calmly.
“We’re going to die! Do you not understand? It’s too late!” repeated Dylan.
“Look we might be able to slow it down. We don’t know how much poison we’ve both had,” said Danny nervously.
“I was sucking crisp crumbs off my fingers! I’m doomed!” squealed Dylan.
“Right, first things first, let’s wash whatever’s left on us off. Last one in is a loser!” shouted Danny, grinning like a madman.
Then Danny did something completely unexpected. He leaped from the top of the waterfall into the pool below. Danny jumped without fear, like a sky diver leaping from a plane. He hit the water with an almighty splash. Water lapped up the sides of the pool, temporarily submerging the edges.
Dylan wasn’t so confident.
“Come on, the water’s lush. Look, we’ll be dead this time tomorrow, let’s make the most of it!” shouted Danny.
He’s right Dylan thought to himself. I’ve got nothing to lose!
He threw himself off the top. He shot through the air like a frog diving for a fly, entering the water with a tiny splash.
Danny whooped with joy as Dylan surfaced.
“Wow! That was fabuloso!” congratulated Danny.
“It might have looked good, but I’ve really hurt my knee,” said Dylan holding back the tears. The boys clambered out of the pool and inspected the wound. Dylan had a long gash along his knee with a nasty graze around it.
“I bashed it on the rock. I went too deep. I managed to lift the other leg in time. But this knee just wouldn’t move quickly enough!” winced Dylan.
“It looks nasty, we better get back and get Mum to look at it,” said Danny.
“Why? We’re going to be dead tomorrow. It doesn’t hurt that much anyway. Come on, lets jump some more,” replied Dylan frankly.
The boys continued jumping all afternoon. It was bliss. The water was cool and refreshing. They experimented with a variety of different jumps: dives, bombs, somersaults, skids and handstands. They had never been so bold and reckless.
The boys decided to make their way back to the farm. They were exhausted. Sadness flooded their hearts as they left the hidden pool. The waterfall had provided them with one of the best days of their lives. They knew that they would never forget it, but they wouldn’t have chance would they? How could this place be so terrible?
The boys climbed on their bikes and set off home at a more leisurely pace. The birds were back from their midday refuges, singing from every tree, flitting from shrub to shrub, chattering endlessly, whilst getting ready to roost.
Zooming along the lane the boys talked about their adventures.
“I bet I can cycle no handed for longer than you,” challenged Danny.
“Are you mad? I am a master of the ancient art of no handed cycling! You are merely my pupil!” boasted Dylan.
“Yeah right. Let’s change the challenge then. We’ve got nothing to live for.” Danny paused, thinking of how to make this task more exciting.
“We have to race no handed.”
They skidded to a halt. Dylan and Danny started counting down together, like they had done so many times before.
“3, 2, 1- GO!”
Both boys started off gingerly, neck and neck. They looked very strange cycling as fast as they could with their arms by their side. Danny started edging forward. They passed by the cow shed, startling the young heifers sheltering indoors. This in turn flushed out four pheasants, which ran in front of the boys. Danny swerved and clipped the front of Dylan’s tire, sending the pair of them headlong into the gritty lane.
“Ouch! My elbow!” moaned Danny.
“My other knee matches,” observed Dylan, “It could be worse. It could have been fatal.”
The boys retrieved their bikes, straightened their handlebars and saddles, and sat down by the side of the track.
Whilst sitting nursing their wounds, the boys noticed a constant trail of hornets flying back and forth past them.
“I wonder where they are off to?” commented Danny.
“Flying back and forth to their nest I suspect,” replied Dylan.
“Shall we follow them? I’ve always wanted to see a Hornets nest,” suggested Danny.
Dylan considered Danny’s idea. He had always wanted to see a hornets nest. Wasp nests had always fascinated him with their elaborate paper construction which looked so sturdy until you touched it. A hornets’ nest would be so much more exciting, like an alien palace on some distant planet. They were, however, a place where large numbers of hornets could be found, and they were dangerous.
“OK, let’s do it,” said Dylan reluctantly.
“Right, which way do we go? They seem to be going in two directions,” replied Danny ponderously.
“If you look carefully, the hornets flying this way aren’t carrying anything,” noted Dylan, “That must mean that they are flying away from the nest.”
“So we need to go that when then!” exclaimed Danny triumphantly.
Charging off in the direction of the nest, the boys abandoned their bikes and nets. What would they need them for now? Who knows where the hornets would lead them? They went over fences, through fields, under bushes until the hornets lead them to the pear tree which was opposite the farm house. As they neared the tree, they noticed a constant buzzing floating through the air.
“There must be millions of them,” commented Dylan in hushed voice.
Danny noticed that these giant wasps all seemed to be entering the tree through a tiny crevice which was roughly at the boys’ eye level.
“What do we do now?” Dylan asked. Yes, they had found the nest, but what were they to do with it?
“Okay, here’s the plan,” explained Danny. He paused to collect his thoughts and then resumed. “We’re going to find some long sticks. Then we’re going to jam them in the hole. That should get them going. Then we run, faster than we’ve ever run before.”
“I thought you we were just going to find it? Why do we have to wind them up?” asked Dylan.
“Look, we’re going to die. We might as well live dangerously in the short time that we have left,” replied Danny.
So they searched the nearby hedgerows until they found what they required: two sticks, which were long enough to give them a head start; cow parsley would be perfect. Creeping towards the tree, Danny readied his weapon.
“When I say, you run as fast as your legs can carry you. We’ll go back to the bikes and then home.”
Carefully Danny, edged his stick to towards the whole. The hornets were already aware that something was not quite right. They had started to buzz around the end of the stick. A hornet landed on the end and started trying to sink its giant sting into it. This attracting another hornet who started doing the same, only this time closer to Danny’s hands.
“Careful – they’re not stupid. Eventually they’re going to realize that your hand is what is controlling it!” warned Dylan.
Then it happened.
Hornets started streaming out of the hole, hundreds and thousands of them. To the boys, time seemed to slow down. They looked in horror as the hornets, sped towards them!
“RUN!” screamed Danny.
Dropping the sticks, the boys turned and fled. They dashed across the fields, under the bushes and over the fences. When they got to their bikes, they didn’t stop; they picked them up and started running with them before hopping on. Speeding along the desiccated lane, the boys laughed triumphantly! They had done it – escaped the wrath of the hornets! They’d pretty much cheated death! Simultaneously, the boys realized that they hadn’t escaped the grim reaper. The poison they had ingested earlier was racing through their system, slowly poisoning every cell – death was inevitable.
“I had a really good day today Dee,” said Danny sadly, “I can’t believe it’s all going to be over tomorrow.”
“I know – but it has been good! We’ve definitely lived life to the full. We’ve taken risks, felt the blood pumping through our veins and pushed ourselves to the limit. It’s been an amazing last day. I think I will die a happy man…” Dylan’s words trailed off solemnly to silence.
The boys turned the corner of the lane for the last time, their hearts heavy. Suddenly a head appeared from a window in the mill.
“What have you idiots been doing? Are you completely brainless?” yelled Bob, Dylan’s dad.
The boys skidded to a halt, looking sheepish.
“Well, I know what you’ve been doing. I watched you from the top of the roof. What were you thinking?” asked Bob, his voice lowering.
“We’re sorry. We were being stupid,” replied Dylan his voice wavering with regret, as he held back the tears.
“To cycle no handed along the lane is one thing, but to wind up a whole hornets nest. Well, I’m lost for words. You need to put your bikes away, tidily, and get yourselves cleaned up. It’s straight to bed after dinner for you! Go on clear off!” scorned Bob.
Cycling off, their tails between their legs, the boys looked at the ground shamefully. What had they done? Being so wrapped up in their adventures they had completely forgotten about their families. They had squandered their last day pulling stupid and dangerous stunts when they could have been spending time with their nearest and dearest. Danny and Dylan put their bikes and equipment away quickly and went indoors.
“What have you pair been doing? I don’t really need to ask – your father has told me everything! Look at your knees, was it worth it? You could have really hurt yourself. Worse than that you could be dead! Three stings from a hornet can kill a full grown man. What were you thinking?” asked Molly, Dylan’s mum, her forehead deeply furrowed.
”We’re really sorry,” yelped Dylan, before bursting into tears.
His wailing set Danny off, the full implications of what they had dawning on them.
“I’ve no sympathy for you! How do you think I would feel if you’d have died today? You can cry all you like. Now go and getting washed and ready for bed, as that’s where you’re going after dinner,” explained Molly, coldly.
This only set the boys off more. If only she knew. Tomorrow she would be crying.
The rest of the evening was uneventful. Danny and Dylan were on the verge of tears throughout dinner, which was a silent, sombre affair. They cleared their plates away without words and went and sat by their parents.
“Off to bed then,” said Bill, Danny’s dad, who had been informed of the day’s events.
“No reading; lights straight off,” commented Bob.
Then the boys did something they didn’t usual do. They hugged their parents’ goodnight.
“What’s all this? Feeling sorry for yourselves are you?” asked Molly.
“Tomorrow you’re staying on the farm. I’ve got a list of things that need doing,” said Bill seriously. “You can start by moving the gravel from the behind the garage. It’s spreading, all over the place.”
“OK dad. Night then,” replied Danny holding back the tears.
The boys got ready for bed in silence, each one lost in their own thoughts. The lights went off and they were enveloped in the inky blackness of their shuttered room.
“Good night Danny. You’re the best cousin ever,” said a voice from the darkness.
“You too Dee. Sorry about today. I wish they weren’t so cross with us. If only they knew,” said Danny resolutely.
“Don’t think about it,” replied Dylan flatly.
“Do you think it will hurt?” asked Danny.
“Don’t think about it,” repeated Dylan his voice trailing off.
“Dylan are you asleep?”
“Dylan, can you hear me… Dylan?”
Danny woke up to find a brilliant golden light hitting him straight in the face. He rubbed his eyes. Was it true? Was he still alive? He glanced around the room making sure he was in the same place he fell asleep. He was, he’d survived! He leaped out of bed and ran over to Dylan.
“Wake up! We’re still alive!” whooped Danny.
Dylan did not move; he just lay there with the sun shining upon him. Danny started to panic. Had the poison killed Dylan but spared his own life?
Slowly opening his eyes, Dylan grinned at Danny.
That day the boys worked hard and spent all their time around their parents. They didn’t complain once; they were happy to spend time with their family.