It wasn't having his hand toasted that made him leave. Or not entirely, anyway. It hurt and all that, sure, but by now Manny was used to the abuse that Bernard showered on him. If you looked at things the right way, it was even a sign of affection. Bernard didn't go to that sort of effort for just anyone.
Okay, yeah, maybe that was a bit twisted. But it was a system, and it worked for them. Manny looked after Bernard, and Bernard shouted and scowled and pretended he hated every minute of it. Manny felt needed and Bernard felt superior and they were both pretty content. Up to a point, that was.
No, the final straw was that Bernard refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. Manny had been living in the spare room for nearly three years, and for all that time he'd essentially been Bernard's other half. People referred to them as "BernardnManny", as if they were a single entity. Waitresses gave them a single bill. Fran bought them a joint Christmas present every year. It was plain to everyone, up to and including strangers on the street, that they were all but married. Everyone except Bernard, apparently. So Manny quit on a daily basis out of sheer frustration and Bernard held out until just before closing time, and then they'd dance around the issue without ever addressing it and every night Manny found himself back in the spare room, staring at the wall wondering what the hell he was doing with his life. Three years they'd been doing this. Enough was enough.
He knew Bernard wasn't straight. Bernard knew he wasn't straight. Cleanliness, dancing and lamps aside, they kept catching each other eyeing off the male customers whenever they weren't perving on each other. Bernard had a stash of gay porn in a false bottom in the desk drawer, including a dogeared copy of "Big and Beardy". Manny kept a discreet collection of sex toys in a shoebox under his bed. They each owned a copy of E M Forster's Maurice and could quote from it. Copiously.
But in spite of all this Bernard would lash out whenever Manny came within three feet of him, except when they were both so drunk the idea of anything physical happening was a total impossibility. It went beyond mixed signals into a weird Bernard-controlled space, where Manny knew he was wanted but couldn't get past the outer walls and into the protected area where all the good stuff was. As time went by he got so stressed his calves would sometimes be in knots for hours.
So he left. Not altogether; he couldn't bring himself to actually move out. But he thought of the worst possible thing he could do next to that, and then he walked into Goliath Books and filled in an application. It helped that Fran was in Cornwall, otherwise the whole scheme would've fallen over. Manny figured that by the time she got back, either he and Bernard would've sorted themselves out or else he'd be starting over in New Zealand.
He never expected it all to go so horribly wrong.
Evan turned out to be five times worse than Bernard on a bender, and that was truly scary. The way Evan looked at him sometimes, like Manny was a science experiment he wasn't sure was going to work out – it worried Manny. Even with all the fancy do-dee-do-doo stuff and though everyone was really nice, he wasn't comfortable. He missed chatting with Fran. He missed having to intercede between Bernard and the customers. He even missed making six runs a day to the off-licence to get more wine. A dozen times he got the urge to run next door, admit defeat and ask Bernard to take him back. He pictured the look on Bernard's face, that same look he got every time. He thought about how good things would be for the first two or three days, until Bernard was secure again. He looked into the future and saw the same thing happening fifty, a hundred times more until they grew into bitter old men with no happiness or love in their lives, all because they couldn't look at each other and say a few words, take a few steps in the right direction. Manny looked at that future and he wanted none of it. He decided he was going to bring Bernard round or die trying.
Instead, Bernard was the one who nearly died trying.
Manny cursed himself for the hundredth time. He shouldn't have left. Bernard never meant it when he evicted Manny; this was the only time Manny had called his bluff, and look how it turned out. He'd known from Bernard's babbling about profiteroles that the fight was basically over - but this time he wanted more than the usual silent acknowledgement. So he'd played dumb in the hope that Bernard would finally spell things out for them both. It had backfired spectacularly, as all his plans did, and now Bernard was recovering from ingesting six different poisons while Manny sat next to him, tore out his hair strand by strand and wondered why Bernard felt he had to suddenly clean himself from the inside out.
He thought about that while he watched his friend sleep. Bernard had protected him from Evan's wrath. Bernard thought his hair was amazing. Bernard didn't want him going out late with strange women. Bernard was so possessive of Manny he tried to cut him off from all his friends.
Had he done it to get Manny back?
It made sense if you thought like Bernard did. The horrible thing was, it hadn't been necessary. Manny's plan had worked, as long as you discounted the bit where he scuttled back to the shop in terror of Evan's clippers. He and Fran helped Bernard down off the wall and they were in the middle of making up under Fran's benevolent eye when Evan barged in. It gave Manny a bit of a thrill to think of it, actually; Bernard had been magnificent, defending him and facing Evan down, claiming Manny for his own in that grand and disturbing way. And afterward, Bernard looked at him like he sometimes looked at pretty girls in the shop, all sidelong glances and half-finished sentences, and Manny was about to suggest they close up and have a bottle of wine - a good bottle, something really top shelf - when Bernard started convulsing and they'd called an ambulance. Two days later Manny was starting to think Bernard would never wake up.
Fran told him not to worry. Bernard was tough; he'd have to be to survive this long after all the rubbish he put into his body. But she stopped by the hospital several times a day, even though she was supposed to be minding the shop. Manny didn't care if they lost business. He didn't care if the whole place burned down, if Bernard would just wake up and yell at him.
He didn't leave the hospital; he slept in his chair next to Bernard's bed, and the nurses smiled and worked around him and said how lovely it was that he cared so much for his partner. Manny didn't correct them because he wanted it to be true.
Bernard woke up at lunch time on the third day. It was a shock to see his eyes open, clear and lucid and impossibly dark. Manny couldn't take his eyes off him. Bernard was awake, clean, shaved and completely sober. He looked vulnerable. Weak. Cute.
Manny looked at him for a moment, weighing options and battling nerves. Then he thought, To hell with it. When will I get another chance like this? He leaned over and caught Bernard's shoulders, pressed him into the bed and had a go.
One thing hadn't changed: even after a stomach pump Bernard still had bad breath.
Apart from that it went surprisingly well. So well in fact that when the nurse came in on her rounds she found them cuddled up on the bed, Bernard's scowl daring her to say something so he could assert his masculinity and general bastardy. Manny just smiled and blushed, though he didn't take his arm away from Bernard's waist. They stayed that way even when Fran came in a few minutes later, though her triumphant cackling rebounded off the walls and her "I told you so!" echoed right down the corridor. Manny figured this was the worst they'd have to endure, so it was best to get it out of the way now. Bernard put his face in Manny's neck and pretended to fall asleep, leaving him to deal with Fran's cooing. Manny tried to be miffed about that, but Bernard's soft breaths felt nice against his skin so he kept his mouth shut and listened to Fran's gossip.
She left eventually, to close up the shop early in celebration. Manny knew they had a narrow window of time before she'd be back with contraband booze. He wanted to enjoy the experience of a sober Bernard for as long as possible.
"Oi. Are we sorted, then?" he asked, nudging Bernard's face up to meet his gaze. "Everything's all right now, yeah?"
Bernard looked like he wanted to argue, so Manny kissed him. Hard.
"All right?" he repeated. Bernard uncrossed his eyes and focused on Manny's face again, and gave a short, silent nod.
"Right," Manny said. "Now go to sleep. I'll go see if we can't get you out of here today."
He started to shuffle off the bed, but Bernard held on and wouldn't let him move.
"Stay a while," Bernard mumbled into his shoulder. That was all. But he clutched at Manny's shirt, and Manny stayed close until he fell asleep again.