'Young Adult Literature Week'
Even its name rang with evil forboding. It sent a chill down the spine. Probably the very pamphlet was folded out of the papery wings of vampire bats and written on with the blood of virgins.
Manny had a bad, bad feeling about this.
Fran's hysterical laughter when he told her about the packages in transit to Black Books wasn't very reassuring either.
'But it was Bernard's idea,' Manny pointed out with some trepidation, remembering what Bernard's ideas had been like in the past. 'I mean, I know he's a little ... tetchy ... around anyone under thirty ... or anyone who hasn't read Dickens ... or Proust ... or Camus ... but it's for the kids! It's encouraging kids to read!'
'You weren't here when Harry Potter first came out,' said Fran, taking a deep, soothing puff of her cigarette. Her fingers shook - the memory seemed traumatic. 'You didn't see.'
'The flames,' she said hoarsely, a distant, crazed look in her eye. 'You can't let him read the books, Manny. You can't.'
'It went okay with the little kiddie's books, though ...' Manny said, and then he remembered. Or rather, didn't. There was an alcoholic blur in his mind where the memory should have been, but there was indeed a vague recollection of ... fire?
Manny put his head in his hands. There was rustling sound, and then a pat on his shoulder.
'It'll be okay.' Fran's tone of voice was akin to that used by doctors to inform you that your condition is only fatal in 62% of cases.
'What am I going to do?' he asked forlornly.
Fran nudged the foot of a wineglass under Manny's fingers. 'Burn the books first?' she suggested brightly.
Manny let his head thunk onto the desk in despair.
'What do you mean, you never got my messages? Manny-moo, I was very careful to enunciate our phone number so that you could call us back-'
'Moo-ma, I know your number. I'm telling you, I never got the messages.'
'I never brought you up to lie, Manny-moo.'
'I'm not lying!'
'Well I can't believe your messages spontaneously deleted themselves ...
Fran knew exactly where Manny's messages were going, but somehow she couldn't bring herself to confront Bernard about it, or about his rather possessive stance towards Manny's social calendar and his insistence that everything be written on it in pencil.
For a start, it was a lot more fun watching the fall-out.
The day of the arrival of the books, or B-Day, dawned grey and clammy. Nothing went right. The mysterious squeaking thing in the kitchen had got itself jammed under the stove and had spent half the night making distressing noises, Bernard's toast fell jam-side down from the ceiling, and to top it all off, the delivery man managed to wake Bernard up when he arrived at seven am. Manny had never known Bernard to wake up before ten-thirty - customers, complaints, robberies, minor gang scuffles, a WW2 air-raid siren and the shop being actively on fire hadn't managed to do it so far, but one bloody delivery man ...
And because Bernard had never learnt to include the niceties in his daily routine, such as changing clothes between one day and the next, or any kind of ablutions, or even a breakfast that didn't consist of a half-hearted attempt to fish cigarette butts out of whatever vaguely alcoholic liquid was congealing in the wineglasses on his desk, Bernard got to the books before Manny did.
Manny made it just past the curtain divider when a paperback the size and approximate shape of a breeze-block hit the desk in front of him, catapulting the contents of Bernard's ashtray over Manny's shoulder and causing half a dozen wineglasses to collide with a sound as of an orangutan caught in a chandelier.
'What,' asked Bernard, with an air of weary enquiry, like Sir Walter Raleigh inspecting his fiftieth tuberous vegetable of the trip, 'is this?'
Manny decided to take refuge in brutal honesty. 'A book?'
'Au contraire, my australopithecine friend. Try again.' The tone was bad. The tone suggested that the rage was simmering. Manny was used to the explosive rage. The simmering rage ... that could go either way. Also, Bernard had clearly opened the boxes of books, and therefore was likely to be harbouring a boxcutter about his person.
'A ... young adult's book?' Like you asked for, he didn't add.
'Pah! What is a young adult, Manny, but a child in a grown-up's body? We shouldn't be pandering to them! We should be pushing them! Needling them! Jabbing their lazy buttocks with the cattle-prods of literacy! Not filling their minds with this ... dross, this slag, this filth!' Bernard flipped derisively through the book, 'It's dangerous!'
'But it's Young Adult Literature Week! The youth are relying on us! Anyway, you haven't even read it!'
As soon as he said it, Manny winced. He eyed Bernard carefully, but he didn't appear to be verging on the homicidal, which was good. Tentatively good. However, he did appear to have that gleam in his eye that signalled an Idea. Manny felt his intestines squirm like a Klingon entree.
His mother had frequently asked him why he didn't find a new job. His friends had asked similar questions. He'd even asked himself, on occasion. Bernard was quite patently insane, a drunkard, a walking health hazard, physically and verbally abusive ... but.
But ... no senior accountant had ever said to Manny 'Come on, let's go wild. We'll get a bottle in and read Great Expectations backwards!' Or defended him from midget mob bosses and crazed chain-store employees. No senior accountant had ever cared enough about Manny's presence or lack of presence in his office to stalk him feverishly if he resigned, or to screen his phonecalls.
Put like that, Manny realised, yes, it sounded disturbing. But ... this was still the best job Manny had ever had. Because here he was Manny, not Employee Number Boobly-boo. And that was a thought to stand tall to, to be proud of, even when you were being beaten about the head with a carpet brush for not uncorking a bottle of wine fast enough.
'Come on, Bernard,' Manny tried. 'Education professionals are looking to us to lead the charge into teen literacy!' He tried an air-punching salute.
'And they shall not be disappointed!' Bernard barked. Yes, definitely an Idea. Manny was torn between anticipation and dread. 'I'm going to need this display completed,' Bernard continued, waving the boxcutter aimlessly. 'And you will present me with a copy of each of these ... undoubted travesties. And a corkscrew.'
'I'm never letting you go to a party again!'
'You can't stop me living my life, Bernard! You don't own me!'
'I have your best interests at heart! That girl is no good for you, do you hear me?'
Fran saw a lot of these arguments. She also saw that Manny never noticed Bernard's expression when he stomped up the stairs, and that Bernard never acknowledged Manny's obvious regret at making Bernard angry.
She had long suspected that Bernard's resistance to dancing and personal hygiene was a front. It said rather a lot about Bernard that she also suspected that he didn't actually realise this himself.
By the next day, with Fran's help, Manny succeeded in getting the shop floor at least slightly de-gunked (there seemed to be something secreting a natural low-grade paste just beyond the doorway) and the display of books set up. Bernard had been nowhere in sight since delivering his orders yesterday. He hadn't even shouted for more wine.
Manny and Fran stood back and admired their work.
'My, aren't they ... colourful,' said Fran, reaching out hesitantly to straighten a copy of 'Brisingr'. 'Are you sure this one isn't available in translation?' she added. 'I'm not sure we get a lot of Norwegian teenagers around here.'
'Oh, no, that one's in English,' Manny said. 'It's the third one in a series.'
'You've been doing your homework,' she said, smiling. 'How about this one-'
A crackling Irish voice barked 'Step away from the book,' far too loud behind them. Manny, trying to work out if his eardrums had blown, swivelled. Bernard stood behind them, holding his megaphone in one hand and the boxcutter in the other.
It was just as Manny had feared. Having read 'Twilight', Bernard was now about to burn the shop down rather than let it ever be read again, by anyone. Manny had indeed done his homework, and he felt he knew what to expect. The internet had been adamant about what the reactions of all right-thinking people were to Twilight.
He started inching towards the fire extinguisher.
'We don't want the displays to be anything less than perfect for the customers!' Bernard continued, still through the megaphone. Manny paused.
'I can see I was quite mistaken about these books. It's important for the youth to be given good examples.'
Manny found himself starting to wonder where the axis of the planet was and how you'd tell if it had fallen off.
'I don't think you should be working there anymore, Manny-moo. He's not a good influence on you, you know that.'
'Moo-ma, you don't understand. He just doesn't show his best side when other people are around.'
'He's dangerous, Manny. I want you to resign, and your father agrees with me.'
'Well ... I don't! I'm a grown man, Moo-ma, and you can't stop me doing what I want!'
Manny was tense with excitement and terror. The shop would open in an hour, and then surely, the righteous horde of wanting-to-be-literate Youth of Today would sweep in, agog to be exposed to the joy of words.
They were set to be disappointed then, given that the stands contained precious little but Twilight and its three sequels. Manny had tried in vain last night to expose Bernard to other pop-culture vampire standards, to no avail. He had waved Interview with a Vampire aside, scoffed at Buffy the Vampire Slayer ('A vampire with a soul? Naught but a cheap plot device!') and poured kerosene on Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter before setting it alight with an unholy delight in his eyes.
The resulting blaze had taken some time to put out.
Manny braced himself, and decided to get up. He sat up and-
'Gah!' Manny yelped and pulled the duvet up around his neck.
'A fine morning, don't you think?'
'Bernard, what are you doing in my room?'
'Oh, nothing.' Bernard gestured towards the window, where the curtains were half-open and displaying a typical overcast day, with his wineglass. 'Enjoying the dawn, I suppose you could say.'
Apart from the hour, it was just another normal morning.
Fran was used to Bernard. She was also used to people not being used to Bernard, and not bothering to get used to him.
Even though she'd fought for Manny's reinstatement as shop assistant, and had done her best to make sure he stayed, she was surprised when he lasted a week. And then when he lasted a month. And another.
Insofar as she'd ever bothered to wonder why she and Bernard had not yet actually killed each other with vitriol and wine and ill-directed anger, she'd put it down to the fact that they could let each others' insults bounce off. And the constant vague drunken haze didn't hurt.
But Manny was seldom even tipsy, and he was thinner-skinned than a bruised cucumber.
It was slightly sweet, how they'd taken to each other. Although other things that were slightly sweet included the odour exuded by the mysterious squeaking creature in the kitchen, and Fran wasn't convinced that was entirely healthy ...
'It's incredible!' Manny breathed, looking out over the packed shop floor. 'The cash register hasn't stopped ringing all day.'
'Never underestimate the power of literature,' Bernard said carelessly. He'd been leaning back bonelessly in his chair all day, feet up on the desk, wineglass in one hand and cigarette in the other. He made an arresting image, albeit one that terrified some of the more sensitive children.
Manny snorted. 'Literature,' he said to himself dismissively under his breath.
'Oh, don't be such a snob, Manny,' said Fran, who was ostensibly on the shop on her lunchbreak. Said lunchbreak had started at about ten am, and she was already about halfway through 'Breaking Dawn'. 'Define literature, anyway.'
'Something invented solely to torture English A-level students?'
'A word reserved only for the most incomprehensible and irrelevant of books?' Bernard suggested.
Manny gave up. 'I'm only saying, y'know, that I think we should be trying to inspire the youth to read something that's a bit deeper than 'oh heavens, a boy likes me, and also he happens to be a vampire' for four entire volumes.'
'Are you trying to insinuate that romance is not a great, nay, historically significant genre?' Bernard demanded. 'Where would we be today if it were not for Pride and Prejudice, or Gone With The Wind? Or Romeo and Juliet, Manny! Romeo and Juliet! Star-crossed lovers is a perfectly acceptable plot device.'
'But it's about vampires!' This was not the argument Manny had anticipated having about Young Adult Literature, although he'd been anticipating having a proper one for some time now. Actually, that was a lie. It was exactly the argument he'd anticipated having, just turned one hundred and eighty degrees.
'You're missing the essential theme,' Bernard said. 'It's a tale of beautiful love against all odds.' The teenagers closest to him nodded emphatically.
'But ...' It's about someone clearly too clumsy and naive to survive outside one of those hospital bubble things and their violent, dangerous stalker! Manny wanted to shout. But the words somehow froze in his throat. It's about someone who defines themselves entirely based on the person they're infatuated with!
'Bernard's right,' said Fran. 'It's time someone told the youth of today what a relationship is really about.'