As he lurches into consciousness, Bernard has the strangest feeling that there's something he almost knows, something he can just about remember. Something very important. Something about a war... secret agents....no, something to do with wings, or... there was this cool-looking bloke who dressed in black, obviously fancied himself, and there was this flickering thing he did with his tongue that was really quite distracting and...
He farts, rolls over, and plunges back into sleep.
Bernard rolls his eyes, and pours himself another mug of disgusting Liebfraumilch. “Shut up,” he says kindly.
“No, but look! Magic!” Manny brandishes the book at him, beaming like a kid who's just found a bright, shiny new penny. The dust jacket is missing, but flecks of gold leaf still linger in the curves of a star on the front cover.
“Oooh,” says Bernard flatly, returning his attention to his lunch. “I think my pants just exploded with joy. Woohoo. Whoop whoop. Huzzah.”
“Come on, Bernard,” says Manny in that stupid imploring-puppy tone that makes Bernard want to staple his nose to the table. “We could learn some tricks! Like, like the one with the three pieces of rope!”
“Is that the one where I tie your hands together with one bit of rope, and gag you with another bit of rope, and then hang you from the light fitting by your throat with the third one, until you gasp out your final, festering breath and free the world of your odious presence for all time?”
“But it could be fun! Abracadabra! Izzy Wizzy Let's Get Busy!”
“I am not Sooty, you pitiful troglodyte. And you're not Nicholas Nickleby.”
“David Copperfield,” says Fran helpfully.
She stays sprawled on the sofa, her unshod toes flexing on the arm-rest and a delicious curl of blue smoke spiralling up towards the filthy ceiling. “David Copperfield. He's the magician. Nicholas Nickleby is just a character in a Dickens novel.”
“Yes, thank you, I know that, thank you very much, Fran. I do run a bookshop. I'm not some ignorant pleb. That's exactly what I was saying. Manny is not a character in a Dickens novel. Are you?”
“Er, no,” agrees Manny, sounding a little lost.
“See! Manny agrees with me! God, why do I have to drink this shite?” he adds hastily, before Fran can expand on this David Copperfield nonsense. “Why don't we have any decent wine? This is like bottled Nazi urine, for Christ's sake! Why don't we have a nice, I don't know, a nice Merlot, or a Shiraz? Some New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon? Is that too much to ask? Is that really too much to ask? I'm sure we had some good wine. Didn't I buy some? From Oddbins? I'm sure I bought some. Expensive. Four pounds, nearly! Not this crap. Liebfraumilch – what does that even mean? Lovely lady milk? That's disgusting, that is. Fucking Germans, making wine out of women's milk. Sick bastards. Where's my nice Oddbins wine, for discerning people? What did you do with it, you wine-rustling fuckers?”
“You drank it all,” says Fran calmly.
“I did not!”
“You did, you know,” says Manny, and Bernard throws a copy of War and Peace at him, but the sneaky little bugger dodges out of the way without even looking up. Bernard heaves a mighty, much-put-upon sigh.
“And anyway, I'm just saying – I could learn some party tricks, or something,” ventures Manny, a little half-heartedly. He carries on leafing through the book. “It could be fun!”
“It could be crap, is what it could be,” Bernard says. “All that pick a card, where's the penny bollocks? Cut the lady in half? You'd have to be the lady, though. Manita. Manessa. Mannywannywinkerbell.”
“Why can't I be the lady?” asks Fran.
“Manny's got longer hair and bigger boobs. He'd have to be the lady. Manny's a lady! Manny's a lady! Manny's a great big girly wirly girl-shaped person, with girl parts! From now on he is to be know as Wo-manny!” Bernard is highly tickled by this shaft of wit, and giggles into his horrible wine.
“Mind you, they've spelled it wrong,” says Manny, oblivious, running thoughtful fingertips over the cover. “With a K. Can't be much good if they can't even spell Magic properly, can it? There's another one here, even older looking. The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes...”
“Oh, shut up and go get me some chips, you overgrown garden gnome,” Bernard grumbles. “In some newspaper. With lots of salt and lots of vinegar. And none of your stupid ketchup rubbish.”
And Manny does.
The book stays where Manny drops it, and is quickly forgotten.
Sometimes, when he's crouched on the bathroom floor with his arms wrapped around the toilet bowl, beads of cold sweat slipping down his forehead and his chin resting on the cracked and crusty seat, waiting for the next wave of vomiting and blaming his current condition on the stale cheese-and-onion crisp that he'd found on the floor after his sixth bottle of inferior German wine, Bernard is seized by the odd conviction that life should be...different. That he should be different. That the bookshop and the bedroom and the bathroom and he himself should all be cleaner. Tidier. Gentler. Kinder. That his very name is wrong. Alan? Azkaban? Aspidistra? Azure? Azri...
And then he pukes his guts up again, and dismisses the idea out of hand.
“Suppose you found a magic lamp with a genie in it, and it could grant you three wishes,” says Manny from under the kitchen table. “What would you wish for?”
Bernard sits up stiffly, peels the slice of marmalade-sticky toast that he'd been resting in off his cheek and takes a tentative bite. Orangey.
“Wine,” he says, even though this is the most obvious thing in the history of obviousness. “Wine. Chips. And a desert island full of beautiful naked damsels who would make me their god king and ply me with more wine and chips forever and ever.”
Bernard glances irritably down at Manny, and tries to remember when his hairy little minion had slid off his own chair onto the floor. Considering how sticky the linoleum is, there's every possibility that the human orangutan may be glued there permanently. Selfish bastard. How's he supposed to make Bernard's breakfast if he's stuck to the kitchen floor? Bernard wipes the remaining marmalade off his cheek with the back of his hand and licks it, because clearly he's going to have to conserve his resources from now on.
“I'd wish for ...for a car that never ran out of petrol. A nice car. And a clean apartment with some nice cheerful plants. And...and...and magical powers. Yes.”
“Make me some tea,” snaps Bernard, bored of this already.
“See, if I had magical powers I could just wave my hand like this,” Manny waves his hand vaguely, his eyes still tightly closed, “and say Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo, and there would be tea! Like a miracle! The miracle of the...tea.”
“Oh look! A miraculous teacup-shaped EMPTY SPACE!” Bernard aims a kick at Manny's knee, and misses. He sucks marmalade off his thumb bad temperedly and pretends that was what he'd meant to do all along.
Manny opens his eyes and peers up at him with an idiotic grin. “You look like an angel!” he says, and Bernard immediately suspects that he's been taking drugs of some kind, and hasn't shared them. “The light's behind your head, and your hair's all sticky-outy with the light behind it like a beautiful haley, halloo, hello...thingy. Shiny thing. You know. One of them. Like an angel!”
“Shut up and make me some tea! Now! Tea! And bring me a nice selection of biscuits to go with it!”
“Okay,” says Manny, and peels himself off the floor.
Of course he remembers the first time he saw Manny, standing there in the middle of a bunch of skinheads looking like a 1970s Jesus impersonator. He knows that for most of his life the world had been a Manny-free place. He knows that Fran is his oldest friend.
But Bernard can't shake the feeling that Manny has always been there. Always. That there never was a Life Before Manny. That all those memories are like chapters in a book he read once, a long time ago. Something pretend. Something somebody else made up.
Which is ridiculous, of course. Manny is just a temporary affliction, like a veruca on the foot or a pimple on the arse or something. Here today, gone tomorrow. Bernard Black had enjoyed a thrilling, fulfilling existence of his own before Manny Bianco ever showed up on his doorstep, with his stupid hair and his hippy sandals and his ideas and irritatingly obedient ways. He will enjoy a thrilling, fulfilling existence once Manny finally buggers off for good.
“Do you ever think who you'd be if you weren't you?”
Manny is barely visible behind a huge textbook. He is quite possibly the world's worst shelf-stacker ever. “I mean if you weren't you. You know. Because it says here that there are all these parallel universes in the...universe. Cosmos. Thing. All these other worlds, with maybe other us-es in them. Only somewhere somebody did something differently – a butterfly flapped its wings in just the wrong way – and so a whole other universe of possibilities branched off. And maybe we're there too, but we're different. Somehow. Not us. We're them instead.”
“So I'm a famous actor and you're a celebrated musician?”
“Yes! Or – or we're both standup comedians! Or secret agents, working for opposing sides in a timeless battle of good and evil...”
“Load of bollocks.”
“Not it isn't. It's physics.”
“Physics is a load of bollocks! What good did Physical Education ever do for anyone, eh? It's all chin ups and jumping jacks and, and, and running around in circles whilst wearing stupid track suits. I mean, it's hardly rocket science, is it?”
“Up. Shutupshutupshutupshutup! Shut up!” There is a long, faintly resentful, silence. Bernard beams. Finally, all is right with the world. “Good boy,” Bernard says, and benevolently throws him a peanut.
Manny catches it in his mouth.
“I had that dream again last night,” says Manny. Bernard continues with his mission of building a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal from fag ends, and hopes that if he ignores this chitterchatter it might just go away. “You know, the one I told you about?”
“Mmm,” says Bernard, noncommitally, balancing the nicotine-stained remnant of a lovely Camel cigarette between his fingertips and wondering whether it's long enough to make a bit of wall. The door opens. “Fuck off! We're closed!” he yells at the customer, without looking at them.
“But,” says the customer.
“We're not closed,” says Manny at the same time.
Bernard looks up from his masterpiece. “YES WE ARE! WE'RE CLOSED FOR RABIES! FUCK OFF!”
The customer flees. Manny sighs. “The same dream again,” he says.
“What? What are you talking about?” Not that Bernard cares.
Manny pushes a set of paperback Trollopes out of the way and perches on the edge of the sofa. “There's this angel, and this devil. Demon. Fallen angel thingy. And they're friends. They're not supposed to be, of course, but they've known each other for centuries, and they're sort of – friends. Friendly.”
Bernard's fingers grow still. He doesn't look up from his nicotine sculpture, but he is listening, suddenly, with every last bit of attention he has. There's something here. Something important.
“Their bosses are scary bastards, so that probably helps. Anyway, they save the world from the antichrist, and then they get – the angel and the demon – they get a bit, you know. Um.”
“I do not know,” says Bernard, but he does know. He knows how this story ends. He must have read it somewhere. It must be one of his books. Or...something. Something.
“Well, you know. The only two of their species on the earth. I suppose they're a bit, um. Lonely. Or something. And the demon's pretty hot, anyway – very cool, very clever. No wonder the angel has a bit of a thing for him.”
“The angel's very attractive too,” interrupts Bernard. “The angel could have his pick of the ladies, if he felt like it. If he weren't busy being an angel, and trying to make the world a better place.”
Manny doesn't seem to have really registered the interruption. “Well, whatever. They end up getting a bit too friendly. You know.”
“Say what you mean.”
“They become... more than friends.”
“Look, they get too close, all right?”
“If you're trying to say that they fuck each other's brains out, then just say it, will you?” Bernard yells, suddenly furious. “The angel and the demon have hot monkey sex in the angel's bookshop, and knock down half the shelves, and little flowers spring up out of the floorboards beneath their bare arses, and fluffy little white feathers get caught in the pages of dozens of books, and the angel's best teacup gets smashed into powder, and it's absolutely perfect, just perfect, just the most blissful, filthy, fabulous thing ever...and then they get busted by their bosses and everything goes to hell in a handbasket, literally, and they're both turned into humans and it's all the demon's fault, okay? It's all his fault, with that flickery thing he could do with his tongue and the way that he could twist a person's words around and trick them into wanting something they never thought they could possibly want in the first place.” Bernard is panting and breathless by the time he has finished this little rant. Manny stares at him. “So it wouldn't be the angel's fault if they got turned into...if their bosses punished them by turning them into the opposite of themselves. Like some stupid celestial joke. White hats turning into black hats. Black hats into bianco. Immortal beings turning into stupid little powerless lumps of flesh. If the demon lost all his, his savoir faire and his sneaky manipulative skills and turned into, into some chubby hippy accountant with no spine or dress sense. And if the angel got all, all unwashed and, and weird and bitter and twisted and turned into a bit of a drunken, misanthropic bastard. It would absolutely positively definitely not be the angel's fault. Even a little bit.”
“Oh,” says Manny, softly, and they stare at each other for a very long moment. “Oh.”
“Not my fault,” finishes Bernard, feeling a little like someone has just smashed him over the head with a piano. It's not...it's...he must have read it somewhere. Or seen it on the telly. Or...but...and Manny is looking at him now, a speculative look, a very odd, un-Mannyish look, and Bernard has the strangest sensation in the pit of his stomach.
“I see,” says Manny. He licks his lips, and something about the movement makes Bernard catch his breath and stifle a moan. “Right.” And then Manny is getting up, and striding over to lock the door, and then he's marching purposefully through the maze of unshelved books with his eyes fixed on Bernard and an expression that is, ridiculously, almost predatory. Possessive. Dangerous. Bernard can't remember standing up. He can't remember feeling so terrified in his life. He can't remember...he can remember...he...
The kiss feels like coming home.
The sex feels like – well, the sex feels like two horny men fucking on a very uncomfortable floor, getting splinters in unfortunate places and getting cramp at unfortunate moments, and both wishing they were younger and fitter and that they had a nice, clean, comfortable bed to hand. And maybe fewer spiders, less dust, and no dead mice being slowly mummified beneath the desk. The earth does not move, no feathers get caught in the bookshelves, and the fabric of the universe is not suddenly rent in twain by a vengeful and terrible god.
But it's still great.
“I love you,” says Manny, some time later. “You do realise that, right? This is forever. In sickness and in health, in heaven and on earth, whatever you look like, whatever you do, whoever you are, whoever I am. It's the two of us. Always.”
And Bernard Black, who was once an angel called Aziraphael, who had once guarded the garden of Eden and given away a flaming sword out of misguided compassion, had once helped to avert the apocalypse, and had accidentally fallen in love with a demon called Crowley, smiles.
“Shut up and make me some tea,” he says fondly. “And a sandwich. A cheese and pickle sandwich. With some crisps on the side. On a clean plate.”
And Manny does.