Bernard smells, of course, of cigarettes and wine. But beneath that is something as stale and interesting as old books, something that a blast of cold water from the rusty shower can't wash away. In a strange way, Manny's grown to like it. It's an acquired taste, he thinks. Like olives. He closes his eyes and leans just that little bit closer to where Bernard is slumped over the desk in an alcohol-induced stupor and imagines burying himself in the scent of him like some sort of musky vole. He twitches his nose a few times in a vole-ish manner, to really get a grip on the role. When he opens his eyes Bernard is staring at him with his usual expression of baffled disgust.
"What in the name of arse are you doing?" he demands. Manny panics and mumbles something about the forbidden lure of voles eating olives, and spends the rest of the afternoon trying to convince Bernard that he doesn't have a weird obsession with forest-dwelling rodents.
Four o'clock rolls around, and Fran rolls through the door, clutching her head in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, looking rather the worse for wear.
"We really should cut back on the drinking," she says, pulling the cork with her teeth and gulping a few mouthfuls from the bottle.
"Manny fancies voles," says Bernard.
She looks thoughtful for a moment as she searches for three usable wine glasses and starts to pour liberal quantities into each. "That's rather specific. Is it just voles, Manny, or is it all small furry creatures?"
"No!" This is terrible. Disastrous. Manny's never quite sure how these things keep happening to him. "Look, it's all a misunderstanding! I would like to make it clear that I have absolutely no inappropriate feelings for any type of creature, no matter how small or furry or twitchy."
Bernard twitches, and glares sceptically at him.
"Oh." Fran looks almost disappointed, and passes Manny his glass, which Bernard promptly intercepts and takes for himself. She shakes her head at him and passes Manny another glass, slapping Bernard's hand away when he reaches for that one too.
A few hours later and they're all nicely drunk. And by nicely drunk, thinks Manny, he means that Fran is trying to start a tap dancing contest on the sofa and Bernard is draped over his desk with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, alternately snoring and shouting at imaginary book thieves.
"Oh bless him, look, he's asleep," says Fran, and takes his cigarette for herself. There's silence for a moment, until: "Manny. Manny!" She waves her hand in front of his face.
"I keep drifting off into a comfortable little dream world where Bernard is feeding me olives and touching my hair. Again," Manny blurts out.
"I beg your pardon?!"
He sighs. "Fran. I think I've got a problem."
Bernard doesn't care how Manny smells. Right now he's in a mood with him, so he sulks behind his desk and scowls at customers who get too close. It's bad enough that Manny infects Bernard's shop with his presence, let alone that he then has the audacity to disappear with Fran for hours on end plotting God-knows-what.
Honestly, what could they be talking about? Probably something boring and stupid and ridiculous and boring. Bernard doesn't care. They're probably having some sort of lurid romantic entanglement, he tells himself. They're probably sipping cointreau and laughing winsomely at stray blossoms in the park or the botanical place or wherever. It's utterly disgusting, and Bernard wants no part of it.
The door opens and they walk in, the terrible two, the debauched duo. Bernard scrunches his face up and tries to imagine them locked in a carnal embrace, but all his brain can manage is an image of Manny fetching more and more copies of the yellow pages to stand on so that he can even reach Fran to kiss her. Why would she want to kiss him anyway, little beardy freak that he is. He'd be all moist and confused, wide-eyed as a startled owl and all tickly about the face.
He opens his eyes just in time to see Fran give Manny a hug, squeezing his shoulders reassuringly. Before he knows what he's doing Bernard is on his feet shouting.
"Get away from him you shameless harridan! He's my Manny, you find your own ridiculously hairy dwarf-man. Like Gimli, or something. Go kiss Gimli, you pervert."
Fran's mouth drops open, and Bernard realises that the three customers who have yet to be frightened away by his foul mood are staring at him with a sort of shocked trepidation. He gives them one of his best what-are-you-looking-at glares.
"What are you looking at?" he shouts for good measure. "Blood-sucking parasites, the lot of you."
Fran hurries over with a curiously intense look in her eyes. "Bernard, what on earth are you talking about?"
"Yeah Bernard, what are you talking about?" says Manny, hot on her heels.
"Shut up Manny," she says impatiently, without taking her eyes off Bernard for a second.
Bernard isn't about to let that slide, oh no. "Don't you tell him to shut up. He's my own precious boy and I won't have anyone talking to him in that fashion!"
Manny stares at him, and his mouth quirks into a little, hopeful smile. "D'you really mean that Bernard?"
"Shut up Manny," Bernard responds, still glaring at Fran.
"Bernard." Fran speaks very slowly and very clearly, as she tends to do when Bernard is being particularly obtuse. "What – are – you – talking – about?"
Well, what was he talking about? Something about Manny and Fran and their illicit affair, secret liaisons in the late afternoon sunshine and such. He shudders. Manny belongs to Bernard, and that's the bottom line. Any and all secret liaisons should be strictly between the two of them, with no outsiders (he glares murderously at Fran) intruding on their young love. Love?
"Yes, love, that's right," Bernard announces loudly to no one in particular.
Fran's eyes light up. "Ha! I knew it!"
"Knew what?" Manny says, looking even more bewildered than usual.
Bernard doesn't hesitate. He knows what he has to do to save Manny from that shameless wench. "That I love you. Yes, I, Bernard Black, love you, Manny-the-freak. So you don't have to go gallavanting about the countryside with Fran any more." He looks triumphantly at Fran. "So there."
Manny blushes and fidgets and can't look Bernard in the eye. His mouth opens and closes a few times before he finally gets words to come out of it. "Bernard, I... I mean yesterday, with all the talk of olives and such, I mean, you know..."
"What Manny is trying to say," Fran says helpfully, and a little smugly, with the air of someone who knew all along how events would pan out, "is that he loves you too, Bernard."
"Um, excuse me," says the one customer who has been brave enough to approach, an odd looking little old man with enormous glasses. He blinks at them like an owl, or perhaps a startled vole. "I was wondering if one of you could help me find a book?"
"Shut up," the three of them tell him.
Bernard starts poking him with a broom. "And piss off out of my shop, four-eyes."
Fran knew all along that everything would work out. Well, apart from at that awkward moment over lunch when Manny had tried to explain the strange feelings he'd been having towards a certain someone and she'd thought he meant her. But they had agreed never to speak of that, which was probably for the best considering that Bernard was turning out to have rather a jealous streak. Who'd have thought!
The funny thing is that nothing's changed, not really. Manny still alternately fawns over Bernard and grumbles about him to Fran, and Bernard still shouts and hits Manny with the sandwich toaster. But there are occasional moments of tenderness between them, and she knows that Manny has moved his things into Bernard's room because she helped him disinfect Bernard's mattress on the condition that he never ever tell her about anything that happens between the two of them in that bed. She shudders at the thought.
She catches them once in the shop, kissing. At least, she thinks that's what it's supposed to be. There are rather a lot of copies of the yellow pages involved, it looks rather dangerous actually. She beats a hasty retreat to the discount wine shop on the corner and buys a few bottles of their finest (and by finest, she means cheapest) red. She's polished off half of one before she gets back to the shop, clearing her throat very loudly and banging the door as she opens it to make sure they know she's there. Bernard and Manny spring guiltily apart, and Manny pretends to be dusting. Fran rolls her eyes and gulps a mouthful of wine from the bottle.
"We really should cut back on the drinking," she says.