By 10 o’clock Tom and Stella were back at the mound, complete with picnic lunch boxes. Stella, who was plugged into her I-Phone music as usual, had brought a pocket torch for looking inside the bushes. For the first time in three weeks she also had a broad smile on her face. Tom had his red birthday binoculars slung round his neck, his digging trowel in one hand, and his treasure rag stuffed in his pocket.
‘Right, we’re going to have a good look inside this bush,’ said Stella. She got down and crawled on all fours into the rhododendron bush that Harry had appeared from the morning before.
Tom quickly surveyed the garden with his binoculars, to see if Charlie Green was about. ‘Coast clear! Coming in!’ he shouted, but then immediately spotted something moving in the shade of one of the distant trees. Were those moles again? He refocused the binoculars to get a better look. But there was nothing there. ‘I think I’m going bonkers!’ he mumbled under his breath. Then he scrambled in after his sister yelling ‘Ouch!’ every few seconds as the binoculars thumped against his knees.
‘Tom, be quiet!’ snarled Stella after the fourth ‘Ouch!’ ‘Do you want someone to hear us?’ As they crawled deeper inside the thicket she switched on her tiny torch which shone a narrow beam of light ahead through the dark. Nothing. Only twigs, more twigs, green leaves, dead leaves, rotten flower heads and – ugh! – creepy crawlies scuttling back and forth across the undergrowth. The leaves brushing on Stella’s hair suddenly gave her the shivers. ‘There’s nothing here, Tom,’ she said, dusting imaginary beetles from the top of her head. ‘Let’s go back.’
Tom had just begun to manoeuvre himself round on the spot, twigs scratching at him from all sides, when his right arm slipped down a hole so deep that on one side he was suddenly up to his shoulder in undergrowth.
‘Hey!’ he bellowed, ‘I’ve found a hole!’
Stella quickly crawled over and pulled him up, then pointed her torch to investigate. The hole was far wider than either of them could believe.
‘Yikes, Tom, lucky you didn’t fall right in!’ she whispered. Stella shone the torch down into the darkness. ‘Well, it’s too big for a rabbit hole,’ she said, flicking the beam of light up and down the inside wall.
‘Look!’ shrieked Tom, so suddenly that they both crashed backwards into the undergrowth. Stella sighed angrily, then leaned forward and held the beam of light still against the earth wall. To her astonishment, she could clearly see what Tom had spotted and she had nearly missed; a rusty metal ladder fixed against the earthen wall, and leading down into the hole.
‘Shall we go down?’ said Tom after they had both stared at the ladder for a minute. Stella didn’t answer. Instead she took out a lime-green polo.
‘Do you think the boat would fit down there?’ she suddenly said. They both stared at the hole again.
‘You’re mad!’ said Tom.
Stella popped the polo into her mouth and grinned as her ears started tingling. ‘Well then, I suppose we’ll just have to go down on our own – won’t we?’
Being the oldest and the largest Stella went first, grasping tightly onto the rusty rungs and holding her torch between her teeth. Tom followed, awkwardly clutching his trowel and not daring to look down. His binoculars were slung across him like a satchel.
‘You okay, Tom?’ Stella’s strange whisper, on account of the torch in her mouth, echoed eerily up the hole like a toothless ghost’s.
‘Fine!’ he lied in a squeak.
Stella had been counting each step as she descended. When she reached eighteen she stopped, took the torch from her mouth, and called up.
‘Hey, Tom. I’ve just realised, Harry wouldn’t have been able to get down here on his own!’
‘That’s just was I was thinking!’ said Tom. ‘Weird!’
Stella, meanwhile, had dangled one foot down, but couldn’t feel any more rungs below her. ‘I think we’ve reached the end,’ she called, continuing to splay her leg out in the darkness like a tentacle. Suddenly her foot hit something hard and wide that she was able to rest on. As she pointed her torch down the tiny beam of light bounced off what looked like the branch of a tree. Then she saw that the wall of the tunnel below the last ladder rung was no longer earthen – it looked like tree bark. ‘Tom, I think we’ve found an underground tree!’ she yelled. Carefully she let go of the last rung of the ladder and grasped a couple of short nodules that were sticking out like giant nail-ends from the bark. Dangling one of her feet still lower she found another branch to rest on.
Soon she discovered there were nodules protruding from all over the place between the branches, making it easy to keep climbing down. ‘Follow me, it’s okay!’ she called. Neither of them had noticed, but the surrounding darkness was turning dim grey.
After they had descended a little farther Stella stopped. ‘I don’t believe this Tom! We’re coming to the outside!’ she shrieked. A pool of light was shining up from below and, as they continued descending, daylight began to surround them.
‘Are we in Australia?’ shouted Tom hopefully.‘No idea!’ shouted Stella, who could now hear the birds singing.
The branches now began thinning out and soon there were only the nodules of the tree trunk left to step and grasp onto. The sun-drenched grass below looked soft, so Stella jumped the final six feet down. Then, as she raised herself from the ground, brushing earth and tiny stones from her knees, she looked up to see the most beautiful lake, surrounded by crimson pink flowering bushes, stretching away in front of her.
Thud! Tom, complete with binoculars and trowel, landed beside her.
‘Told you there was water nearby!’ said Stella triumphantly, pointing at the lake.
Tom, still breathless, clapped his binoculars to his eyes. ‘Where on earth are we?’ he whispered, scanning from left to right trying to see beyond the trees on the far side. Suddenly he fixed on something moving on the lake. ‘Look at that, Stell!’
‘My goodness!’ she murmured. About half way across the lake, a boy in a small boat was rowing frantically in their direction. She snatched the binoculars from Tom, to get a closer look, almost throttling him.
The boy in the boat didn’t see them at first because his back was square onto them as he rowed. However, as he drew closer he turned and spotted them. As soon as he hit the bank he clambered out and began to pull the boat high up in the direction of the tree.
‘Gi’s a hand wi’ this will yer!’
Tom and Stella, who had only been able to stand and gawp, stepped obediently forward and helped him pull the boat right up under their tree. They were speechless, and all the time couldn’t take their eyes off his dirt-smudged face, his ragged brown suit with half-length trousers, and his filthy lace-up ankle boots.
‘Naa, don’t you go tellin’ on me, will yer – yer never saw me, right!’ he growled.
Despite his snarl, the boy looked terrified. Stella and Tom shook their heads then stood in silence as he dashed into the woodland behind.
‘Where did he come from?’ whispered Tom.
‘More to the point, where’s he going?’ said Stella. ‘Did you see the clothes he was wearing?’
Tom started sniggering. Stella, meanwhile, was staring out across the lake to the far bank in front of the woods where there was a little opening. ‘Quick! Give me those binoculars back!’
Tom passed them over and Stella clapped them to her eyes. ‘What is it?’
‘Oh, no, it’s, nothing,’ Stella said vacantly. But then as she passed the binoculars back she squinted across the lake again. ‘Funny, though, I could have sworn I saw some moles just then!’