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by Anthea Holland and DF Lewis

"I'm not going last!" Joe said, pushing in front of Mark and ducking his head as he entered the tunnel.

He thought he heard Mark mutter, "Wimp," but wasn't about to turn and challenge Mark, deciding discretion was the better part of valour. Mark was at least 40 pounds heavier than him and a good head taller. If Mark wanted to call him a wimp that was fine. At least, Joe thought, I'm not at the back and nothing can whisk me soundlessly away without anyone noticing I've gone. But he kept his reasoning to himself. No point in all of them thinking he was a wimp.

Bent-backed, he followed Jim, Paul and Chris through the semi-darkness, still wondering why this tunnel hadn't been marked in the guidebook -- not that he'd been able to figure out, anyway. He was also wondering whose bright idea it had been for each of them to fork out the price of a pint of beer to visit these ornamental gardens. Not a very macho thing to do -- they'd have been far better off going down the pub like they usually did on a Saturday afternoon. Hell! It wasn't even as if they were tourists. They only lived down the bloody road, for God's sake.

"Get a move on," he complained, scowling at the slow pace the guys in front were moving. He hated confined spaces -- and he wasn't too fond of the dark, either. Not that he'd admit that to his mates.

Ah, light at last. Not a long tunnel, then.

Rarely did gardens of the let's-take-an-aged-Auntie-for-a-butchers-at-the-pretty-blooms variety possess tunnels of any length burrowing beneath the prize flower beds and fountainesque sculptures.

It was when one of their party -- Joe wasn't certain who -- had conducted some laddish horseplay among the topiary, toppling forwards into an opening that had earlier masqueraded as a freshly hedgecut gingerbread house straight from Hansel and Gretel...

They knew they'd be bound to accompany a fellow drinking pal even into the gates of hell, so everybody had sheepishly followed the leader into the dark opening. Blood brothers, having pressed cut veins together in a rite of loyalty, were as nothing when compared to these friends of Joe who had merely drunk beer together!

"Didn't say anything about this tunnel," someone had called.

"I bet it's some sort of maze for kids," Joe had managed to call from his position next to the back  in an attempt at brave bonhomie. That was just before the light at the end of the tunnel had become the first pinprick burning towards the optic fuse.

Joe shook his head. What was he thinking? He felt he wasn't really himself. Optic fuse? What was one of them? He laughed as he recalled those loose wires left sticking out from his Dad's clumsy plugs at home.

It was when Mark poked Joe in the back that the light at the end of the tunnel suddenly vanished. Jim and the others in front must have obliterated it.

The lads came squinting into the bright sunshine. There was no need to count them out, because nobody had counted them in. But it was pretty obvious two of them were missing the minute they stepped out of the tunnel into a small walled area with a pond in the middle and seats round the edge.

When Joe finally fell thankfully into the light, Paul, Tony and Chris were gazing round them obviously bewildered.

"So where are the others?" Joe asked.

"Dunno," was Paul's response. "They've disappeared."

"You're having me on," Joe said, but the look on Paul's face stopped the laugh that was trying to escape from Joe's mouth.

"Nah," Joe said eventually, "They've scarpered through that gate." He nodded in the direction of the exit.

"No way, mate," said Paul. "I was in the lead and I'd 'ave noticed if they'd shot past me."

Yes, Paul was always the leader -- ever since their school days when it was always Paul who had suggested bunking off school or trying a bit of shoplifting. Joe looked to him now for guidance.

"Don't look at me, mate," Paul said. "Jim was directly in front of you -- didn't you notice him disappear? And Mark -- okay, he was behind you, but wasn't there some noise or something?"

Joe shook his head. "I never heard a thing. Christ! It was so pitch dark in there you couldn't hear anything anyway, and you lot in the lead were making such a racket it would have drowned out any noises."

"So what do we do now?" Chris asked.

"Dunno, mate." Paul responded. "Any ideas, Joe?"

Joe was stunned. What was the point of asking him? He didn't have any leadership qualities. They really must be in trouble if Paul couldn't come up with an idea.

So they took the line of least resistance. They did nothing. They went home their separate ways, without even attempting to make bee-lines for pub or offy. They hadn't even dropped bread crumbs to leave a homeward trail for those AWOL. Joe recalled playing Follow My Leader as a child, but then they had a rope-line between them, so nobody could get lost.

Joe's Dad's line of business was snooping, private detective work, investigating sordid affairs and laundering money... He was in the armchair when Joe got home. Joe's line of defence would be that he'd been courting that bird from the bread shop again and a million miles away from the ornamental gardens. Ornamental, even as a simple word, had a mad ring about it.

"What you doing, Dad?" Joe suddenly asked as he watched the grey-haired man he called Dad plaiting a rope. Better than his highly amateurish efforts at DIY. Joe had never recovered from the electric shock one of Dad's ad hoc socket repairs had given him when he was a small child. Dad couldn't get in any mischief with rope could he?

"Your mum wanted her washline mended."

Joe nodded. He recalled all their smalls being smeared over the garden by stray dogs this morning, after the rotting line-prop had snapped in two under some pretty heavy weather.

Joe sat down in front of the TV and squeezed his eyes together. Tunnel vision. Or something akin to migraine. There was pain at the back of his brain. He sensed strobing. He could not blot out the lights. Far bigger than pinpricks now. He should have gone to the pub after all. He wondered if, say, Paul, Chris and Tony had double-backed and were now quaffing ale by the gallon. Hair of the dog. That was what he needed. But then what about Mark and Jim? He couldn't help worrying.

Hearing his Dad yawn and the gentle plop of the rope twirling upon the floor in haphazard spools, Joe decided to return to those ornamental gardens. Mad, maybe. But he couldn't think straight, let alone sleep, with such nagging worries at the back of his mind.

"I'm going out," he announced, and left the room, his Dad staring after him open-mouthed in amazement.

Joe grabbed his coat and left the house, checking he had enough money in his pocket for the entry fee.

How could we have just run off and left them there, he wondered?

A few hundred yards from the entrance he caught sight of Paul ahead of him and sprinted to catch his mate up.

Paul heard his footsteps crunching on the gravel and turned towards him.

"You too, huh?"

"I couldn't just leave them," Joe said.

"No, me neither. I just hope we can find that bloody tunnel again."

They paid their entrance fee and in unspoken agreement headed side by side for the topiary. Once there they gazed around for the Hansel and Gretel style house -- which seemed to have completely disappeared.

"Maybe we squashed it out of all recognition," Joe suggested.

"Nah. It must be here somewhere -- or what is obviously the remains of it at least."

No amount of searching the grounds revealed anything remotely resembling anything like that they had tumbled into earlier. There was no sign of any tunnel, and certainly no sign of Mark and Jim.

"We'll just have to find the other end of the tunnel," Paul suggested, "Surely we can remember where we came out."

Meanwhile, others of the beer brotherhood had begun turning up like bad pennies in dribs and drabs: each surprised at such spontaneous regrouping. One for all and all for one, that was what the Musketeers had said in that famous book by Alexandre Dumas. Here, it was more like the rest of them for two. Not such a ring to it. And it didn't sound as grand but their passion of loyalty was just as great.

"How could Jim and Mark disappear when Joe was between them?" asked one of them, having evidently returned here via the pub. Solitary drinking -- well, they'd often suspected him of it. His name was Amos and he generally kept a low profile. Indeed, on many occasions, Amos' presence went quite unnoticed.

Startled by his sudden contribution to the proceedings, Joe momentarily forgot his headache.

The others turned to face Joe. "Yes, Amos is right, Joe. What exactly happened?"

"I'm not my Dad, you know," said Joe. "How the Dickens am I supposed to fathom it all out?"

Joe visualised his Dad -- complete with frayed deerstalker and magnifying glass -- seeking the end of the tunnel in the ornamental gardens. Joe'd hate that. All his pals would then realise what a buffoon Joe's Dad really was 

Meanwhile, Amos made a statement that drew everybody's concentration back towards him: "Perhaps Jim and Mark weren't there in the first place and they were mere illusions."

Everybody tried to get a handle on what Amos had just said. Paul and Chris were doing cartwheels in the garden's twilit grotto where their search had eventually ended up. Whooping with joy. There'd be no police investigation. Not even a clumsy teasing out of the threads of mystery's fabric by Joe's Dad. Jim and Mark would be at the pub even now, having originally refused pointblank to visit the -- what were they? -- ornamental gardens. Nancy boy stuff at the best of times.

Joe was dumbfounded, though. Mark and Jim had been there. Of that at least he was certain.

Or was he? Was this all a dream... the mischievous machinations of an overwrought subconscious?

He pinched himself -- hard.

"Owwww!" Everyone turned and stared at him.

"Something up, mate?" Paul asked.

"No," Joe hung his head, not wanting to meet Paul's eyes for fear of inviting some more awkward questions.

Not a dream, then.

"Look," he began. "I know it would all be very nice and cosy if Jim and Mark had never been with us, but they were. I touched them, for God's sake!"

"Oh, yeah? Always did wonder about you," one of the beer brotherhood commented. "An' I expect this sissy expedition was your idea, was it?"

"No. No, you've got me wrong. When I said 'touch' I meant --"

"No need to explain, Joe." Paul came forward and slung an arm round Joe's shoulders. "It's only a joke." He turned to the others.

"Come to think of it," announced Joe with grim vigour, "I had a conversation with Jim right before we went into the tunnel. It's no good clutching at straws, lads, Jim and Mark were definitely with us when we went into the tunnel, but not when we came out. We've got to carry on looking."

"Supposing they've materialised in the meantime and gone home?" Chris asked.

"You go 'round their houses, Amos," Paul said, "and Chris   you go check the pub." Joe was relieved to hear Paul giving orders again; it threw the whole world into disarray when people behaved out of character -- and the world was disarrayed enough at the moment.

Further members of the brotherhood continued to arrive in due progression of anxious destiny. Lads and fellows darkened by every tinge of bitter and mild from dusk's best. Among, them, Joe noticed, was a bent old man peering at the ground through a smoke-ring as he seemed to stalk his own loping shadow on all fours.

Paul's shouts of instruction faded with the light. As did the other belly-laughs and cat calls.

Amos stood alone. Joe noticed that even his own body (Joe's body) faded with the light, too. Paul, Chris and the others became merely see-throughs of men behaving so badly they failed to keep within their own margins of believability and good sense. A line of shimmering silhouettes following each other from the garden of earthly delights. Fused, blended by the optics that held the bitter gills of spirit.

Tracked by a deerstalking creature who loved eating wimps.

Yes, Amos stood alone, an ornamental spirit of the most clouded wits. The solitary drinker. He who spoke to himself as well as of himself, forcing that illusion of fellowship. He tried to touch the next in line. The Indian File broken like a launderer's wash-prop.

"I'm not going last," said a ghostly voice, upon seeing the oven door.

The End

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"Illusion" ©Anthea Holland and DF Lewis. Used by permission of the authors.
Raven Electrick ©2000-2001 Karen A. Romanko. Clipart by Corel®.