This story, like so many others, ends on a balmy Bloomsbury afternoon. Manny has been playing a tape of soft ocean sounds for the mollusks in hopes of inspiring a homesickness within them; the customers are tiptoeing around gleefully, whispering over their selections; and, at the desk, Bernard sleeps peacefully, cigarette pack tucked lovingly in the crook of the arm upon which he rests.
"Finished browsing?" Manny mouths to a customer eyeing the cash register speculatively and hovering over Bernard. "Over here." He leads the man over to the couch, where they complete the transaction in conspiratorial silence. "Do enjoy." On his way out, the patron negotiates the small doorway with Fran, who has just arrived. Inordinate shuffling later, he is gone and she's inside. Manny lifts a finger to his mouth and nods to Bernard at the register. She follows his gaze and, understanding, moves with a light step to the desk. Manny is now shaking his head frantically, but she gives him a reassuring look. She places a hand beside Bernard's head.
"Wake up," she yells, and bangs her fist against the wood.
"Bernard," Fran said, "you know you're gay."
Bernard whimpers. "Wake up!" Fran repeats. "There is retail going on under your nose, Bernard. You shouldn't stand for this. It's insubordination!"
"Jesus, you banshee!" Bernard snarls. "What time is it?"
"Two in the afternoon."
"Two in the afternoon!" he roars, spluttering on a receipt that's stuck to his lower lip. "What, was your poledancing class canceled?"
"Yes! What was I supposed to do instead? Come on, be reasonable."
"I should kick you out right now," Bernard mutters, but Manny shrugs.
"What's the point? You've scared them all off anyway." And, indeed, the store is now empty.
"Oh." Bernard avoids Fran's triumphant gaze and says grudgingly, "Well done on that one anyway."
She smiles, pulling up another chair and pouring them each a glass of yellow Chartreuse. "Bernard Black, I know the way to your sopping-with-drink flinty heart."
"I'm not," Bernard replied. "You know as well as I do that I cannot abide discussions of lavender in the color sense. Or the phrase 'color sense,' which I happen to know they love."
"Bernard, you don't have to talk about pastels with the other homosexuals unless you want to."
"Or that! You see! Pastel is a crayon, lavender is an herb, and unless I become an artist or an apothecary I'll have no occasion to speak of either, until the day I die."
"Bernard, I think you're being rather close-minded."
"I am not." Bernard stared resolutely ahead. "I am manly and heterosexual when I choose to be."
"What does --"
"Oh, dear God," Bernard shrieked, scrambling to stand on his chair as particles rained down from the greasy jungle of his hair, "was that a mouse?"
"That's disgusting," Manny says, watching Fran leave. "You can't just let her bully you like that. Stand up for yourself!" He turns to Bernard, shelving beside him, and vaguely punches his arm. Bernard bellows semi-monstrously in reply until Manny backs away in fear, and then returns to his shelf.
"Just because you don't understand true friendship when you see it doesn't mean we're all so deficient."
"What?" cries Manny. "Haven't I done your accounts? Haven't I cleaned up after you and kept guard against the badgers whenever possible? Haven't I minded the shop whenever you needed and kept you functioning and in business?"
"Exactly!" Bernard spits, "you needn't rub it in. Fran cares. She only gets me drunk and alienates new people. She couldn't be a better friend."
"It's all right, Bernard, I've got rid of it. You can come down now." With a gingery hop, Bernard was back on solid ground and peering suspiciously at the floor. Fran emerged from the kitchen with a bloodthirsty grin. "So anyway, the party's going to be lovely."
Bernard smacked his own forehead. "No, Fran, no! I don't want to go to the party, I don't want to try being gay, I don't want any part of your diabolical schemes for human interaction!"
"But it's New Year's Eve. You don't have to do anything," she grasped his arm as he tried to flee, "or anyone, I promise. Tim has lots of friends who're gay -- and straight. Straight women! We'll get you all cleaned up. It'll be fun."
"Since when is cleanliness fun? Or having lots of friends? Or fun? Let go of me!"
"Bernard," said Fran seductively, "there will be absolute oceans of booze."
"If Fran is such a great friend, why didn't she tell you your fiancée Emma was still alive?" Manny takes a deep breath, knowing he is on thin ice. Bernard studiously ignores him, a sure sign of hitting where it hurts. A sudden surge of guilt diverts his line of questioning unexpectedly: "Or maybe she's in love with you!"
Aside from the deep-set scowl, which he currently directed at the pages of the book he'd been reading, Bernard was really a vision: his hair, which was clean for possibly the first time since he'd met Fran, was now resembling what he'd always imagined when he read the word 'coiffed.' "Do you know," she mused, fussing with the hair just above his right ear, "I think you might actually be handsome."
"Of course I'm handsome," Bernard replied sulkily. "I'm Irish, aren't I?"
"What does that have to do with anything."
"It's the potatoes in our blood," he said, now trying to fend off her more detailed styling efforts with a wild wave of his hand, "good for the complexion. Are you done?"
"Fine, fine." Fran removed the book from his hand and as he grasped for it back, she pulled him up by his reaching hand and made him look in the mirror. "You look like a normal human being who anyone would be happy to kiss at midnight. I wish you had at least one set of clothes that's not black, though."
"Without potatoes we wouldn't have vodka, either," Bernard noted. "I've yet to meet a potato that let me down. Or made me network with gay men."
"She's not in love with me," Bernard says, adopting a condescending look. "I'm an ass to you, I have heard it rumoured."
"You know," Manny says, as his chest puffs out and he folds his arms, risen to his full height, "now that you mention it, and, if I think about it fairly, there have been times when I've felt that, a bit --"
"Your theory is that Fran cultivates my misanthropy and bullies me in order to keep me to herself, because she loves me. But I do that to you just because it's funny." Manny gapes, indignant. "I'm sorry, Manny!" Bernard continues. "Even your magnificent Farrah Fawcettian locks of hair do next to nothing for me."
"Bernard, every man at this party is gay."
"I know," he replied, serenely pouring himself another drink. "You did your best to make it exciting, but I'm sorry, Fran, I can't be swayed, no matter how glorious they think I smell."
She snatched at a bottle of liquor and attacked its screwcap violently. "Oh, who cares if you're not queer? I thought there'd be a few straight men here, and given the company, absolutely desperate. For me!" She gulped angrily right from the bottle. "The man I just spent fifteen minutes trying to talk to is bent as a banana, Bernard, what am I going to do?"
"She slept with you, didn't she? You see. Love." Manny's expression betrays the confusion he feels as to how he got to be arguing this point.
Shocked, Bernard glances around. "Quiet! Can't you have a little delicacy, and also, it's a secret."
"And why would she make it a secret from you if she didn't love you? That's the secret." Manny smirks, a detective triumphantly unraveling his mystery.
"Why would she make it a secret from me if she did love me? Obviously whatever happened was scandalous and terrible, and if I remembered it would ruin our very strong friendship wholesale."
"That doesn't make a lick of sense, and besides which, I'm still not sure it's possible to force a person to forget something. Hang this, I'm asking her myself." On the case, Manny stalks out.
Finally alone, Bernard flips the sign and settles on the couch. The sign still says open -- they haven't yet got the hang of making one that's not the same on both sides -- but he's confident that with Manny gone, any potential customers will see him manning the store by himself, and immediately know much better.
She kissed him, surprising them both; men all around them were wrapped in their own embraces, and some poor unpaired girl ran to the door and opened it, letting the cacophony of street celebrations and the new year in. "Well," Fran said, swaying on her impractical heels, "happy new year then."
"I am not in love with Bernard. You know what he's like."
Manny takes note on a tiny pad he's found somewhere. "But you did sleep with him on the New Year's in question, did you not?"
Fran stands before a window, smoking a cigarette pensively. "So what if I did? It didn't mean anything."
"Or did it mean... everything?" Manny cocks an eyebrow. He's been watching a lot of noir lately; he makes another jot on his casefile and hopes that it shows.
It happened in this way: Fran was supposed to be taking Bernard back to his house, but in a blurry mistake of navigation brought him to hers instead. "I'll just be going," Bernard mumbled, stumbling a couple steps before he reached a chair and sat down gratefully. "I'll just be staying."
"Whatever," Fran said, "just go to sleep, will you? I thought I was getting laid tonight and instead I have to wank and baby-sit you. This is the worst New Year's ever."
"Oh, no," Bernard cried sympathetically, "not a wank!" By some miracle he rose back to his feet, and pitched forward to where she sat on the bed. "Fran," he said, "you're my friend and you didn't send me home with a man, and I'm verrry grateful. Let me help you." His kind smile was only slightly tarnished by the fact that he was talking to her reflection in the mirror.
"God help me," Fran moaned, "have I finally gotten you so drunk that you completely forget who you are and become friendly and amorous? I didn't know that happened."
"Me neither!" Bernard flopped backwards onto the bed and grinned spoonily at the ceiling. "Though I always knew that medal of commendation for good citizenry had to come from somewhere."
"No, Manny, it really doesn't mean anything." Fran stubs out her fag, and reaches for a new one.
"Why won't you let him remember it, then?"
"It was a drunken screw with a platonic friend. Who wants to remember that?" She flicks away a little ash. "It's inherently humiliating."
"Whoops," Bernard giggled, "I guess I've had a bit much for that." His trousers, though unzipped, lay quite flat against him. "Anyway, I could still lend you a hand." This set him off again in another childish gale of laughter, and, at her wit's intoxicated end, Fran had to join in after a moment. She placed a tentative hand on his shoulder and kissed him again, to which he responded in kind. It was a little messy, but on the whole, unexpectedly nice. Fran let him take off her shirt, wondering all the while -- every ounce of his concentration was fixed on an uncooperative button, dark eyes unwavering and expression free of his standard grump.
Shirt successfully removed, Bernard pulled a victorious face. "I know you wanted one of the handsome poofy men," he said, "but at least you're getting one with clean hair." He worked his way down her body.
"So your refusal to allow Bernard recollection of this event is really your idea of doing him a favor," says Manny, tapping his pencil excitedly against the pad.
"Yes," Fran agrees, taking a long drag. "It was awful."
"Oh, fuck!" Fran cried out, flailing at a pillow. Bernard grinned and she reached out for him, delightedly determined; a little intoxication wasn't going to stop her from giving what she undeniably now owed.
"Then only one question remains," Manny announces, now pacing the floor dramatically. "Why do you sabotage any possibility of Bernard forming a new relationship?"
"I don't do that!"
"You encourage all his most misanthropic urges. And," he adds in an injured tone, "I'll have you know I have to pay for those dearly with his abuse."
"His abuse, Manny, exactly," Fran agrees, ignoring his pain. "You've seen him interact with women. One of them faked her own death in order to get rid of him. Why let him inflict that on anybody else?"
Manny stares at her, pencil hovering over his notes. "I do see your point there."
"That's what I'm saying, Manny. He'd be the world's worst boyfriend." She exhales smoke. "Is there anything else you want?"
"Hnghh!" With a snorting start, Bernard jerked awake. Fran, propping herself up against the headboard, was already up and gazing at him with a slight smile.
"Hi," she said, trying for goofy nonchalance and affecting an awkward shrug. "It's half noon, but what the hell. I thought I'd let you sleep."
"What?" Bernard tore at the covers, trying frantically to take stock. "Sleeping from what? Did an alien steal our clothes?"
"Ah," said Fran. "Er. No. You don't remember?"
"I, hmm." He surveyed the scene. "Fran, not to alarm you, but I have some suspicions."
He scrubbed at his hair, mussing further what was already spectacular bedhead, and when that was done raspberried experimentally against his palm and smelled it. "Well, it wasn't beer that made me do this."
"How about breakfast? I've got some bangers," she laughed stupidly, "and eggs of course --" Bernard grunted and rolled out of bed onto the floor. "-- Or we could just laze around for a while! It is New Year's Day."
"Oh, God, that means... Oh, Fran." He stood up, trousers on and head trapped in the neck of his shirt. "Fran," he said again, and finally freed his face. His expression was horrified. "FRAN."
"Calm down," Fran said placatingly, "we'll just get you some tea and Irn-Bru."
"Tea? I need -- beer, I need lots of -- maybe wine. And that fizzy, ugh, my head." The head in question was stubbled, and his skin shone in a sickly way.
"It was just a bit of fun," she said.
"Fun!" Realization continued to dawn in his features, as if one by one the jigsaw pieces of the night before were becoming clear to him. "Fran, do you know what has happened? This is not fun. This is disastrous. Usually I embarrass myself drunkenly where it can't haunt me for the rest of his life." He scratched at his running nose, and Fran leaned back, considering. He made some wordless noises beyond human comprehension that finally coalesced into something recognizable. "I need more alcohol."
Manny shakes his head. "If you're sure that's the truth, then I'm satisfied."
She meets his narrowed eyes levelly. "So am I. See you later."
"Yeah, at the shop," he says, walking out slowly. "That's where I'll see you."
"Yes," Fran agrees. "Later, then. At the shop." He shuts the door behind him.
With Bernard gone, there wasn't really much to do. It was New Year's fucking Day and she didn't have to labor over breakfast for one; the thought was absurd. She'd have cold cereal and listen to the radio; wait for the shipping forecast. Naturally she wasn't going to call Bernard, both so mortified and mortifying now that he was back to his miserable senses. Getting him drunk enough to be nice was a fluke surely never to repeated. Outside on her window sill, half-formed snowflakes were clumping.
Fran curled in blankets six inches deep, against a mess of pillows and rumpled sheets. Tuning the radio through various frequencies muffled with static, she made a decision, which is how this story begins.