It was a very personal and very special mission which only they knew about, and it was very important that they carried it out without the interference of any of their school friends. It was just something that the two brothers needed to do alone and they needed to do by the end of the day.
The sudden appearance of Gavin ‘Weasel’ Wilkins standing with two of his buddies on the pathway up ahead of them was not a good sign that the day was going to go as planned.
“Oh no, look!” George said as he spotted the three boys in the distance. “We’d better find another way there, Simon.”
Simon, the elder of the two brothers by three years, shook his head.
“Don’t worry, George. We’ll get there okay – we have to. They’ve seen us already, so we can’t turn round now. Just leave any talking to me.”
George was pleased to hear this. His big brother often took responsibility and looked after them both. He’d already planned their time out of school for the afternoon and had planned and packed the items necessary for their mission, which he how carried in his rucksack. He was still concerned about just how they would get past Weasel Wilkins and his team – they were pretty much the main pack of bullies in their school year.
The path they walked along was a single gravel track that led from the back of the school playing fields out towards a fork in woodlands. Turn left at the fork and you could head towards the town, turn right and the path led on to the riverbank. It was the riverbank route that the brothers wanted to take.
“Hey, toads!” Weasel Wilkins called out as they approached him. “Mummy and Daddy know you boys are out on your own?” He asked. A cruel smile formed across his face.
Simon didn’t break his stride as he guided his younger brother straight past Weasel.
“Sure they do.” He replied simply. “Do yours?” He regretted the comment as soon as it had left his lips and even more so when he found himself shoved to the ground by one of the two thugs at Weasel’s side. He landed on his side, taking care not to crunch his rucksack as he fell to the gravel pathway. He said nothing more, just stared up at the evil face that stared back down at him. From his back pocket a paperback book had fallen and now lay in the dirt.
“What’s that? A kiddies’ book? Ahhhh!” Weasel mocked as he kicked the copy of The Wind in the Willows further down the pathway.
George rushed to pick up the book and then ran back to his brother’s side and began to help him back up to his feet.
“You okay, Simon?” The timid seven year old asked. He then turned to the three figures who were smiling back at him. “What did you have to do that for?” He asked the nearest thug.
The thug just shrugged in response.
“He was askin’ for it.” He grinned. “He deserved it. He deserves more, actually, but I’ll hold back for now – see if he starts behaving.”
“It’s okay.” Simon said as he got back onto his feet. He tapped George on the shoulder. “I’m fine, come on let’s just get going. Mission to complete, remember?”
George nodded in response.
“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s get going.”
“Ooh, they’re going on a mission!” Weasel jested. “Did you hear that, guys? The brothers Toad are going on a mission – do you think they might be secret agents or something? Where you going weirdos? Can we come along?”
George looked across at his brother, questioningly, his face willing Simon to say that they could not follow, they couldn’t allow anyone else to accompany them, their mission was too personal – not for strangers to be involved in.
He was shocked to hear his brother’s reply.
“Sure, Weasel. Sure, you can all come with us. We may need some help with rowing anyhow. But, when we get to where we’re going, you have to promise to leave Simon and me alone, just for a while. What we’ve got to do today, you see, it’s private, secret, personal.”
Weasel Wilkins seemed almost as shocked as George was at the invitation to join them on their journey.
“What’s the catch?” He asked, tilting his head to one side. “There’s got to be a catch.”
“No catch.” Simon replied. “It’s just that we can’t have anything hold us up today, so you may actually be able to help us – make sure we get to where we’re going in time – that’s all. We can’t afford to miss this today – what we’re doing, it has to be done today. Any other day would be too late.”
“Too late for what, exactly?” One of Weasel’s goons asked. “What’s the big secret, anyhow?”
“Can’t say.” Simon replied. “You stay with us today, make sure we get where we need to be, and you’ll find out what’s so important. We just can’t risk delay, so let’s get moving. If you’re coming along, then let’s get going.”
George was still surprised at Simon’s agreement that Weasel and his gang were to be invited along for the journey, but realised that if his brother hadn’t agreed for them to come along they might never even get to the place they both needed to be.
He rushed to get to his brother’s side as he marched off in the direction of the riverside. Turning and looking over is shoulder he saw Weasel and his two companions talking for a while and then they began to follow.
“Are you sure about this?” George asked hurriedly. “Do you really think they’ll let us do what we need to do?”
Simon nodded back at him.
“I’m absolutely certain of it.” He replied. “I know something about Weasel, something that happened earlier this year – he’ll certainly not stop us from what we’re about to do. He’s not as tough as he makes out you know.”
They walked for about fifteen minutes, Simon and George kept up ahead, with Weasel and the other two following closely behind. Nothing much was said. All seemed to know roughly where they were headed – the pathway they were taking only led to one place, the riverbank and a small wooden jetty that local fishermen used to moor their rowboats.
“So, that’s it.” Weasel called out. “You want us to help you steal a rowboat, huh? You want to use old Weasel and his team for a little illegal activity? Not up to the job yourselves huh?”
Simon stepped onto the wooden jetty and turned round to face him.
“No. That’s not what we want, Weasel. You see, we have a boat. That one right there – that’s our boat.” He pointed across to a small rowboat covered with a blue tarpaulin that was tied to te end of the jetty.
Weasel and his two henchmen followed Simon’s gaze to the boat’s position.
“That’s yours?” Weasel asked. “Hey, fellas, these two own a fishing boat! How about that? They must do okay for pocket money, eh?”
“It’s our Grandad’s rowboat.” George chipped in. He paused and then added. “He let’s us use it when we want to fish.”
“Cool!” Weasel said in response. He clicked his fingers towards the boat and watched as his two helpers rushed to the side of the jetty and began to untie the tarpaulin and uncover the boat, moving quickly like a coupe of trained chimpanzees.
Simon was about to call them to stop, but realised that they were simply getting the boat uncovered and ready for them to set sail.
The tarpaulin was dragged up onto the jetty, revealing the small boat and the oars that lay inside it.
“Kinda small, when the tarp’s off, isn’t she?” Weasel commented. “Looks like it’ll just be me coming along for the ride with you two after all.” He turned to his accomplices. “You two fold up that tarpaulin and wait here for me to get back – looks like there’s only enough room for three special agents on this ‘mission’ after all.”
They said nothing in response and went about the task of folding the cover as they had been asked. George wondered what it must be like to have two people at your disposal like that, who would do anything they were asked to do – they were like robots under Weasel’s command.
Simon climbed down and into the boat and held his hand out to help his younger brother down. Weasel simply jumped into the boat, causing it to rock suddenly, forcing all of them to hang on for fear of being capsized. The boat steadied again and, after untying its moorings, Simon used one of the large oars to push them off from the jetty and began to row away downstream.
“Just the one set of oars?” Weasel asked. “Not much I can do by way of help is there?”
“I’ll let you do a bit in a while.” Simon replied. “I’ll just get us underway and then you can take over for a bit.”
Weasel looked around as they moved on along the river an then he looked around the small boat itself. George was sat up at the front, looking out ahead, Simon in the centre, rowing hard and he sat at the rear, a hand gripping each side of the boat. He realised then that something else was missing. Unless Simon had a extremely compact telescopic set of fishing rods in his backpack, then there was no fishing equipment on the boat at all.
“Hey, guys.” He called out. “Couldn’t help but notice the lack of fishing gear on this boat. How you going to complete your ‘mission’ without rods?”
“This isn’t about fishing, Weasel.” Simon shouted back over his shoulder. “Well, not exactly anyhow. All our Grandad’s rods and stuff are where we’re headed. Have you ever been to the island?”
“Henley’s Island? Is that where you mean?” Weasel asked.
“Yes – well, that’s where we’re going now. And that’s where all his, and our, fishing gear is kept. We always had better luck fishing from there – only ever used the boat to get to and fro.”
“Never actually been there.” Weasel admitted. “Seen it. Used to see it from my Dad’s boat, but never actually set foot on the place.”
George was surprised at this revelation.
Weasel Wilkins, the big tough guy, the big know-it-all who claimed to have done all sorts of things had never even been to Henley’s Island? – It was hard to believe.
Both George and Simon had noticed a change in Weasel since they had left the jetty. Without his henchmen he’d become a lot less threatening – George guessed that’s what happened a lot with bullies, they only had safety and strength when in numbers.
Another few minutes into the journey downstream and Simon turned round to face Weasel.
“Okay – you want to row now?” He asked.
Visibly a little shocked at being asked to assist, Weasel nevertheless quickly agreed and carefully changed places with Simon to take up the oars. He was clearly stronger than Simon and they were moving through the water faster after he’d found his rhythm.
“That’s great.” Simon called ahead. “Just keep it like that, straight ahead now and we’ll be at the island real soon.”
If he could have seen Weasel’s face at that moment, he’d have been shocked at the sight of a smile across the boy’s face.
Weasel himself was surprised that he could gain pleasure from spending time with the two brothers without the need to inflict any pain or upset on them, it was a whole new experience for him.
Content that his new rowing partner had the job well in hand, Simon settled back against the rear of the boat and carefully removed a clear plastic wallet from his rucksack.
He held it on his lap and carefully read over the words that were written on the two pieces of paper it contained.
Bright sunlight from overhead shone down onto the paper, making him squint to read what was written, but he knew it was important that he read them again, at least once more, before they reached the island.
The words were final words – words that, once written, could never be written again.
He read the words on both pieces of paper over again once more and then decided that no changes were required, the words were exactly what needed to be written.
He reached into his back pocket and brought out his book. The Wind in the Willows was George’s favourite and they always took it with them whenever going to the island and read it whilst they fished. He wiped dirt from the cover from where it had been kicked earlier and smiled at the image of Mole and Ratty in their own rowboat.
Tucking the book and the clear wallet carefully back into the rucksack and zipping it closed he looked up and saw the island was directly ahead of them.
“Okay, Weasel.” He called out. “Can you take us right there, right into where that large tree overhangs the water? That’s where we can moor the boat.”
“Sure, no problem.” He heard Weasel reply.
It wasn’t the voice of an old enemy or of someone who earlier had pushed him to the ground. It was the voice of someone who seemed to want to be a friend.
The boat bumped up to the front of the large tree, coming to rest amongst dense rushes and low hanging branches. George jumped out from the front of the rowboat and pulled the front tied rope with him to wrap around the trunk of the tree. He then stepped forward and offered a hand to help Weasel step out. Without a pause, Weasel took his offered hand and stepped from the boat, before turning and offering the same to Simon.
The gesture was not lost on any of the boys, and all felt odd at the sudden shift towards a kind of friendship which seemed to have formed in such a short space of time.
Just behind the tree where they had moored the rowboat, Weasel could see a large fallen tree stump and he watched as the two boys moved around to the other end of it and began to pull at something that was inside it.
They dragged a large parcel wrapped in clear plastic onto the grass and began to unravel it to remove its contents.
Simon looked up at Weasel as he began to drag out what he assumed were fishing poles and equipment from the plastic.
“This is the part where we’d rather be left alone, Weasel.” He said. “It’s something that George and I have to do. If you want, you can sit in the boat, or go for a walk around the island – please, just give us a few moments.”
The boys looked at one another as Simon spoke. Weasel said nothing in return and Simon wondered if he were about to be met with aggression once again. He watched as Weasel simply nodded once, turned, and started to walk away into the woodland.
George looked up at his brother as they continued to remove and assemble the fishing gear and to unfold the seats that were also wrapped within the plastic.
“Do you think he knows, Simon?” He asked. “Could he know what’s going on?”
“I really don’t know.” Simon replied. “I don’t think so.”
Once they’d set up all of the fishing equipment and the seats by the riverside, the boys pushed the plastic sheeting back into the tree trunk and stood back to admire the sight.
“Oh.” Simon tutted himself. “Something’s missing.”
There were three chairs set by the riverside and he walked over to the middle one and stood behind it. George watched silently as his brother took his book from his back pocket and carefully placed it on the middle chair.
“That’s better.” He smiled.
“Okay, George.” He checked his watch. “It’s nearly eleven o’clock, are you ready little brother?”
George sighed deeply, Simon could see that tears were welling in his brother’s eyes as he nodded and stepped forward.
Simon removed his rucksack and sat in the right hand chair, George took the left chair, leaving the one between them empty except for the copy of The Wind in the Willows.
George watched as Simon carefully opened the rucksack and removed the clear wallet with the two pieces of paper enclosed and place it on the chair between them. Then, taking the utmost care not to let it fly free, he carefully eased a heart-shaped silver helium balloon from the rucksack and held it tightly by its red ribbon string. He let the rucksack fall to the floor.
George offered up the clear wallet and, between them, they tied the ribbon through some of its perforated bindings to secure it in place.
“Okay?” Simon asked his brother.
“Okay.” George nodded.
Simon looked down at the book on the otherwise empty chair between them and spoke quietly.
“Grandad. We might be too young to say goodbye to you with mum and dad today at your funeral, but we still needed to say goodbye. So, George and I have come here – to our island, with our book – the one we always used to read together, to send you our own messages. They should get to you in heaven just in time, we think – hope so. We’re both going to miss you, Grandad, but we’ll always have this place, we’ll always have your stories. Love you.”
Simon held the balloon ribbon string out so that George could also hold onto it for a moment. He watched as his younger brother mouthed the word “goodbye” and then they both released the balloon, standing and watching it raising skywards, carrying their handwritten messages, until the combination of bright sunlight and tears made it too hard to see it any more.
Simon placed an arm around his brother and pulled him in tight to him.
He felt as though they were being watched.
They both turned and behind them, tears flowing down his cheeks, stood Weasel.
He wiped at his face quickly.
“Mission accomplished guys?” He asked, smiling at them. “Hope you don’t mind that I came back to watch? I just wish I’d done the same thing as you just did for my daddy a few months back.”
George looked at Simon.
His brother had known all along that Weasel Wilkins was never going to stop their messages getting sent.
“Weasel.” George replied. “Why don’t you come and sit with us?”