It was nearly sunset when Fran entered Black Books. The late afternoon sunshine filtering in through the grimy windows gave the shop an attractive sepia tint which probably did wonders for her complexion. Shame there wasn’t anyone nice around to appreciate it.
She found Bernard fast asleep in his chair, snoring peacefully with a half-empty wine-glass clutched precariously in one hand.
“Psst!” whispered Manny, poking his head through the curtains that separated the squalor of the shop from the subtly different squalor of the kitchen.
Fran opened her mouth to say hello but Manny shook his head, put his fingers to his lips and gestured frantically behind him.
“What are you doing?” she whispered when she’d joined Manny in the kitchen.
Manny tugged the curtains a fraction of an inch apart and pointed out into the shop. “Do you recognise that man?”
The customer in question was browsing the shelves on the far side of the shop. He was short and fair and his face looked vaguely familiar.
“Hm, maybe. Who is he?”
“I don’t know. I think he might be a spy from Goliath Books.”
Fran squinted. “He’s probably just someone famous,” she said thoughtfully. “Hm … not on big brother, not a soap star-”
“Oh!” shouted Manny. “Detective! Not detective, friend of detective! The one that was dead but not really, wore a funny hat, ooh, tip of my tongue-”
“Sherlock Holmes,” said Bernard quietly, stirring in his chair. “That’s his new fancy man.”
“Ohhh, that’s right.” Fran nodded. “I remember now.”
They relaxed and stared at the unsuspecting celebrity. Fran was just contemplating saying hello when Bernard picked the ledger up off his desk and hurled it at the man.
The book caught him on the shoulder. “Ow!” he yelled, whirling around. “What the hell?”
“Get OUT!” Bernard picked up another book and weighed it menacingly in his hand. The man glared at him before striding out of the shop. “Right then,” said Bernard briskly as the other customers scuttled after him. “Time to go to the pub.”
“Hurrah!” Manny disappeared upstairs to fetch his ‘going to the pub’ hat and Bernard lit up a ‘waiting for Manny’ cigarette.
Fran perched herself on the edge of the desk and frowned at Bernard. There was a memory niggling at the back of her mind of a long, drunken, late-night conversation about men and people and all of them being bastards, especially the posh bastards with stupid names and made-up jobs.
“Hm,” she said to no-one in particular.
Sometime in the late 1990s
Bernard was halfway through his afternoon bottle of wine when he was interrupted.
“I’m looking for a book,” came a deep, irritating voice from the front of the shop.
“They’re on the shelves,” said Bernard, waving vaguely around. “All over the place. Can’t miss them.”
“I’m looking for a particular book,” said the voice, now closer.
“Then try a particular shelf.” There was silence for a moment. Then footsteps heading to - ha! ‘Non-fiction and other lies’ in the south-east corner.
Bernard turned his attention back to Proust. He managed two more pages before ‘A Poisoner’s Guide to London’ landed on the desk in front of him with a loud thump.
Bernard scowled at it before raising his gaze to look up at the intruder.
Oh. Oh, look at him. He was Heathcliff and Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester all rolled into one, glowering marvellously with his Byronic cheekbones. He probably spent all day striding across the moors, coat billowing dramatically in the breeze, before coming home to brood over a fine brandy and hand-write rude letters with exquisite penmanship. Bernard wanted to write a sonnet about his tousled hair, a villanelle about his pretty eyes, an epic ode about-
The shop door sang out its merry song and some bastard of a customer walked in. He looked like a banker. Bernard hated bankers.
“Piss off,” snapped Bernard.
The putative customer failed to piss off. “I’m looking for a book-”
“You won’t find it.”
“- for my wife,” he continued unfazed.
“Your mistress,” corrected the handsome stranger.
“Please, it’s obvious from your tie. Poor choice, dating a woman who plays tennis with your wife. You do realise that they’re setting you up? Divorce settlements can be so expensive these days.”
The banker bastard turned a funny shade of red before dashing out of the shop.
“There. Now will you sell me this book?”
Bernard was too busy staring in admiration and lust to reply. Blood rushed to parts of his body that weren’t used to it - his heart, his cock, and his right foot from where he’d just dropped his book on it.
The man frowned at him. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” said Bernard, rubbing his foot and still staring. “No. That was magnificent.”
The man continued frowning. “Was it?”
“Like the first cigarette of the morning.”
“You’re not annoyed that I chased away your customer.”
“Customers are bastards. People are bastards.”
The man smiled at last. “True.” He looked as if he was going to say something else then looked down at the book in his hand. “Um. So, how much for this book?”
“Oh fine, if you must. Ten pounds. And I’ll need to take your name and number for our records.”
The man put a ten pound note down on the table. “For your records?” he said with a half-smile, raising one eyebrow.
Bernard blushed in what he could only assume was a becoming manner and ran a hand through his hair, dislodging three biros and a pipistrelle bat. “Yes. Records. I record things, all the time, very professional. I’m Bernard Black. Would you like to have sex? Sometime, obviously, not now. Unless you want to, that is.”
The man drummed his fingers on the edge of the desk. “Sherlock Holmes,” he said at last, a sentence that was as charming for its brevity as for its lack of the word ‘no’.
“Delighted to meet you,” said Bernard in a dignified manner. He tucked the ten pound note away in a drawer and stood up, swaying only slightly. “Would you care to come upstairs and see my etchings? I should warn you that I am currently in want of a housekeeper.”
Sherlock laughed. He sounded like wine tasted - nice wine, fancy wine, that came with corks and dust and unpronounceable names. “Alright.”
“Marvellous,” said Bernard, beaming like a fool.
Sherlock, vibrating with energy, was moving twice as fast as Bernard but somehow they managed to find their way to a laughing, gasping rhythm. Mouths, cocks and sweaty hands came together under the cool sheet. Sherlock swore, quietly and eloquently, as Bernard mouthed filthy odes against the smooth, clean skin of his throat until at last they tumbled into orgasm together, exquisitely clumsy.
Afterwards they lay naked and unabashed on the bed and smoked an entire pack of cigarettes between them. Sherlock squinted through the fug and told the story of every single stain on the ceiling.
“No no no,” interrupted Bernard at one point. “The fireworks came after the thing with the squid, I’m sure of it.”
Sherlock shrugged sulkily. “I was right about the rest, though.”
“No idea. Can’t remember.”
Sherlock stubbed out his cigarette, stretched, climbed off the bed and started picking his clothes up off the floor. He was dark and dishevelled and beautiful.
Bernard rolled over onto his side. “Will you come round again?”
Sherlock paused in buttoning up his shirt. “Yes?” he hazarded.
“Splendid. If you want to woo me, wine is always acceptable, but I must warn you that I play hard to get.”
Sherlock flashed him a crooked smile. “Of course.” He winked and let himself out, leaving Bernard to contemplate the sharp, unfamiliar feeling in his chest.
The next time was a week later. Sherlock showed up with a bottle of wine and fourteen different brands of cigarettes and insisted that Bernard help him smoke them all. When they’d finished he took the piles of ash and left.
Sometimes he’d come round every day for a week. Other times it’d be months without a word or sign of him, during which Bernard would pretend that he didn’t care and write tragic romance after tragic romance. Brilliant, heart-rending prose that he burnt to ash as soon as Sherlock re-appeared because there was nothing especially romantic about one man failing to fall in love with another man. Especially when they were both wankers.
Once, early on, Sherlock turned up high as a kite and chattering about brick patterns. He kept up the flow of nonsense all the way up the stairs and into Bernard’s bed. Afterwards, when he’d calmed down, Bernard asked him (in an entirely adult and gentlemanly fashion) if he was intending to leave his telephone number this time.
“Why would I do that?” said Sherlock sleepily.
Bernard didn’t ask again.
John’s shoulder was still aching when he got back to Baker Street later that afternoon. His mood was worse.
“Did you get into another fight with a machine?” inquired Sherlock without looking up from his microscope. “You really should start hitting back.”
John smiled tightly and hung his coat up. “No, as it happens. Someone threw a book at me.”
Sherlock looked up at that. “Why would someone throw a book at you?” he asked, displaying about as much sympathy as John had expected.
John threw up his hands. “No idea. I was in a bookshop, just browsing, when the man behind the desk suddenly threw a book at me. Worse customer service than you.” He filled the kettle, flicked it on and leaned against the counter listening to it boil.
“Little Bevan Street?”
“That’s right,” said John before narrowing his eyes at Sherlock. “Why? What did you do?”
A faint look of guilt crossed Sherlock’s face so quickly that John wasn’t entirely sure he didn’t imagine it. “I bought a book. Years ago.”
“Right.” The amount of aggravation Sherlock was capable of causing in a simple transaction like buying a book was almost unlimited. John waited a couple of minutes to see if any further information was forthcoming before giving in. “Good book, was it?”
Sherlock gazed into the middle distance. “Yes,” he said eventually before turning his attention back to his slides. “It was.”