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Give Me A Child Until Half-Past Seven

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The front door slammed. Bernard Black mumbled in his sleep, but did not stir from his prone position, face down in an empty cornflakes bowl with bits of bacon perched on his thinning black hair.

Fran slammed the door a second time, and cleared her throat. "Ber-nard!"

"Wuzzfuggle," Bernard smacked his lips, somewhere in the damp, bacony darkness of the bowl. His left hand began a fruitless crawl across the desk in search of cigarettes.

"Thank God," Fran said, taking this as a sign of sentience. "Bernard, I'm going to Majorca for the weekend with my Mum. I need you to look after Max for me."

"Whozmax?" Bernard mumbled, his questing fingers closing around what turned out to be the accounts ledger. Fran began shuffling back towards the door, ready to flee.

"My son, Bernard, I –"

"WAITAMINUTE."

Fran sagged. Morning was usually a good time to sneak things past Bernard; the hangover haze generally hadn't cleared, and if Manny wasn't around to interpret for him he found actual spoken objections too difficult raise for him to actually be able refuse any favours she had in mind. It was a time-honoured process that rarely resulted in awkward interrogations, and Fran had rather been banking on this. It turned out that along with "wine" and "borrow it for a while", Bernard's lizard hindbrain was attuned to any mention of children.

"Wait just a minute," Bernard went on, on his feet faster than any man that dishevelled should be able, especially when Fran had seen just what he'd been drinking the previous night. He looked disturbingly bright-eyed – well, alright, more bulge-eyed – and alert. "What's all this? Your what?" He prowled across the bookshop, stiff-legged, and snatched the unlit cigarette from Fran's lips.

"You remember that time one New Year's Eve where we absolutely did not sleep together?" Fran began, keeping her head down and her voice low as she searched her handbag for further cigarettes.

"No. You said I'm not allowed to."

"We-ell, you remember when I said I was going to Marseilles to fat camp? And you said the only way I could possibly lose any weight was if it was one of those camps where they tattoo a number on your wrist and you have to be really cautious about whether you go for the group showers?"

Bernard looked non-plussed for a moment, the pilfered cigarette dangling forgotten in his hand. "No. Wait a minute. Yes."

"I was actually having your illegitimate baby," Fran gave Bernard her best Everything Is Fine smile, the one that looked like her mouth had been winched open at the corners and accompanied a wide-eyed stare, with the hint of genital violence in the background should the recipient refuse to accept that everything was indeed fine. "So it's okay?"

"And the bottle of wine I gave you for losing weight, Judas? What about that, Ms So-Called Baby Mother?" Bernard snapped triumphantly, and clicked his fingers at Fran. "I want that back. You lied to me!"

"You drank it, Bernard. You let me smell the cork and wouldn't let me have any of the wine. You said I'd 'balloon up into a fat cow again' if I drank any of it and started lecturing me about how many calories there were per serving." Fran pulled out a second cigarette and lit it, giving Bernard another Everything Is Fine, Do Not Argue smile. "Oh! One more thing. Max doesn't know I'm his mother, and you're not to tell him. He thinks he's my very little brother."

"Do you not think he might notice that his 'mum' is eighty and start asking questions?" Bernard sneered.

"Bernard!" Fran glared. "You have to swear you won't tell him."

"Alright, alright."

"Swear it." She reached up and seized a handful of his hair with her free hand, dropping cigarette ash onto a pile of Jane Austens with the other.

"Ow. Alright. All right, I said!"

"Good." Fran let go and wiped her hand on her shirt absent-mindedly. There was a lot of bacon fat and general Bernard-grease to get off of it now. She opened the door to the shop and called back through it without taking her eyes off Bernard, "Ma-ax …"

"Wait! What are you doing? I didn't agree to this!" Bernard lunged for Fran's sleeve with a look of desperation, but she ducked out of the way. "You can't just foist my own son on me! It's not natural! Fran!"

"You didn't say no," Fran pointed out sweetly, "and it's only for one weekend. It'll be good for you." She leaned back out of the door, letting more ash fall onto the shop floorboards. "Ma-ax. Put that down and come here."

"You know I hate children," Bernard grumbled, "They're messy and smell funny and they're sticky and they leave condoms and rude drawings in the books."

"The last one was you last week, actually." Fran peered around the corner. "If it gets that bad I'm sure you can make Manny look after him, like you do everything else," she finished with more than a hint of disapproval. "Where is Manny?"

"Cleaning the bath with bleach. His pelt had infested the plughole and was starting to colonise the shower curtain."

"Max," Fran said by way of an announcement. In the doorway beside her stood a five-year-old boy with thick black hair, an expression of trepidation, a Harry Potter rucksack glasped in one hand and a pink tutu over his school trousers. "Max, this is your Uncle Bernard. You'll be staying with him for the weekend while Mummy and I are away." She smiled desperately, first at the boy and then at Bernard.

"Why," Bernard asked, glaring at Max, "is it wearing a skirt? It's no wonder your entire family are insane if this is how you're encouraged to grow up."

"He's going through a difficult phase," Fran shrugged, and ruffled Max's already unruly hair. "Be a good boy for your Uncle Bernard, Max, and don't let him get you drunk or sell you into slavery."

"It smells funny," Max complained, wrinkling his nose. "Why does Uncle Bernard's shop smell funny?"

"He's going through a difficult phase too," Fran replied, glaring at Bernard. "Right. I'm off. Remember to feed Max. Max, make sure Bernard has a bath."

She closed the door gently behind her, the Clopen-Clopen sign slapping against the glass in her wake, leaving the small boy, rucksack and sense of palpable tension hanging in the air between him and Bernard.

"Have you got any video games?" Max asked immediately.

"No."

"Have you got any Harry Potter books?"

"No."

"But this is a bookshop!" Max pulled anxiously on his tutu.

"It's a grown-up bookshop for grown-ups." Bernard snapped, retreating behind his desk and helping himself to a lolly from the carousel, a remnant of Manny's attempts to lure children and their excessive pocket money into the building. "Children are not welcome here. And nor are the kind of grown-ups who read those books."

"Have you got any sweets then?" Max asked, apparently certain that he was onto a winner.

"No," said Bernard from around his lolly. "But I do have a brilliant game."

"Yeah?" Max perked up, clutching at the handle of his rucksack.

"It's called the 'Max stands by the door and doesn't move or talk all weekend' game," Bernard said, picking up Fran's discarded Heat magazine from the under the accounts ledger with idle interest. "Fun, isn't it?"

"No!"

"It sounds like fun to me," Bernard said, taking his lolly out of his mouth with a pop. "You're obviously not trying hard enough."

"But Uncle Bernard –"

Bernard never got to find out what Max's objection was, because at that particular moment Manny entered with one of his hands swathed in bandages and his face a picture of dismay and pain. Max gave a terrified yell and hid behind the table.

"Bernard, did you put live bees in the bleach bottle?" Manny asked, cradling his bandaged hand and eyeing his boss with a look of wounded dignity that said he knew exactly how the bees had come to be buzzing around the bathroom.

"Where's my breakfast?" Bernard demanded, turning over a garish page without looking up. "I'm reduced to eating sugary child treats." He brandished the lolly as evidence, and shoved it back into his mouth. "This is terrible. I should fire you at once."

"What is that?" Max squeaked from behind the table, his tutu protruding into the walkway.

"Why is there a small boy hiding behind the table?" Manny added, peering around Bernard's head. "Bernard? What's going on?"

"Why all these questions?" Bernard yelled, throwing the magazine aside. "The bees were probably attracted by your stupid honey-scented shampoo! The small boy belongs to Fran! The hairy monster is evil and you are right to fear him, Max, and the child, Manny, is a cross-dressing midget on the run from the complete insanity of the Katzenjammer family. Now where. Is. My. Breakfast?" He prodded his closing statement into Manny's forehead with his finger, and slapped him impatiently in the bandage.

"I … didn't realise Fran had children," Manny said, looking bewildered. In Bernard's opinion this was one of the least attractive of Manny's myriad horrible expressions, although it was hard to choose as they were all so awful. "She's never said –"

"Fran's my sister!" Max squeaked helpfully, cowering behind the ash-covered Austens. He sneezed.

"Quiet! I'm dealing with this!" Bernard barked. "The dwarf in the ballet skirt is Fran's very small brother, and it's your responsibility to make sure it doesn't urinate on anything or starve to death or whatever dreadful things it is that unattended children do when they're. You know. Unattended."

For the rest of the day Bernard sat in uninterrupted and unusual silent bliss. Admittedly some customers had shown up and tried to buy things, but a combination of his baleful glare and Manny running towards them with an excess of eagerness, a tutu-clad child bouncing on his shoulders, soon saw them off.

Manny was too busy trying to keep Max out of the Rat Cupboard (so named because it was so disgusting that rats went there to die) to berate Bernard for calling an old lady customer an "over-stuffed satchel of shoe-polish and whine", which he enjoyed immensely even if it didn't make much sense. And the midget had proven quite adept at fetching corkscrews and other sharp objects – Bernard thought this especially fun, as Manny was forced to drop whatever he was doing and chase after the errant boy to prevent possible puncture wounds.

Really the only problem that presented itself by eight that evening was how to explain to his illegitimate son why he wasn't allowed to eat an entire carousel of lollipops in place of dinner.

"Because they're mine," Bernard snapped, hugging the red plastic cone to his chest with one arm and trying to shovel the Chupa Chups into his coat pockets with the other. "You can't have any."

"Bernard, we've got to give him something," Manny sighed, hovering anxiously between where Max sat, stripping the covers from books returned for refund, and where Bernard hunched over his sticky contraband like Willy Wonka's less savoury cousin. "He hasn't eaten all day. He'll starve."

"Not my problem," Bernard said airily, stuffing another handful of lollies into his coat.

"Fran will be very angry."

"Why can't he just have wine for dinner like a normal person?" Bernard complained, spitting out the chewed end of a lolly with derisive impatience. "For Christ's sake!

"You can't give wine to a five year old!" Manny baulked. The bandage around his hand was starting to come undone.

"No, you're right. His palate isn't refined enough yet. He needs to start smoking first." Bernard cast around the desk for his cigarettes, which Manny hastily swept onto the floor. Bernard sighed. "Don't we have any food?"

"No."

"Have you got any money for a take-away?" Bernard thumbed through the accounts ledger and paused. Max had drawn a picture of a duck in a pair of glasses on Bernard's pristine alpine lake of neon blue. The little bastard.

"No. You made me spend all my wages on a wine rack, remember? And then you hacked it up with a chair leg."

"It was ugly! It didn't match the décor of the room!"

"And what décor would that be? 'Rotting Bachelor'? 'Late Modern Landfill'?" Manny snapped, momentarily diverted from the problem of feeding the heir to the Black estate. Max dragged the conversation swiftly back onto a track more closely associated to him.

"Uncle Bernard," Max piped up from the floor, a streak of dust along his nose and an expression of intense concentration on his face as he pulled the binding off a hardcover copy of Bleak House, "is Uncle Manny your boyfriend?"

Bernard and Manny exchanged a horrified look. Manny's eyes bulged slightly, making him look, Bernard thought, like a toad being slowly strangled. A really hairy toad that spent too much time wandering around Middle Earth.

"No!" Manny yelped.

"Yes!" Bernard said at roughly the same time.

"What?"

"I MEANT NO! I MEANT NO!" Bernard shrieked, grabbing at his own hair. "No! Jesus Christ. If I was gay – which I am not - I wouldn't tie myself to life-long partnership with something that looks like a strategically shaved orang-utan!"

"You're not gay," Manny mumbled in confirmation, letting the insult slide off him without even frowning. "I've seen you dance."

"Oh," said Max from the floor, as though the whole matter had been settled and Manny and Bernard weren't staring at each other in abject dismay, Bernard leaning as far back on his chair as he could without falling over and Manny backing towards the bookshelves in case he needed a missile to fend off Bernard. "I'm going to be a gay when I grow up," Max added, pulling a crayon from his rucksack and beginning a complicated doodle on the fly sheet of Nicholas Nickleby, "and I'm going to drive a bus."

"It's a little early to being making big life decisions like that, isn't it?" Manny asked, looking apprehensively at Bernard. "You might want to do something else when you're grown up. You might want to be a bisexual marine biologist."

"He might want to be an entirely heterosexual bookshop-owner like his da- uncle," Bernard muttered, examining a lollipop. "If I feed these to the runt he'll be awake until dawn using the walls as a trampoline."

"If you don't feed him something we'll have a dead child on our hands and Fran will break your arm," Manny pointed out. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Bernard."

"Oi! You! Underager!" Bernard snapped, leaning over the desk. Max looked up from his doodle. "You can have one lollipop. One. And you're not allowed to have a cola one, they're my favourites. Or strawberry, they're my other favourites. And I don't know what flavour the blue ones are meant to be but they'll give you nightmares."

"Cannihave – " Max began, and stopped, adding a bit of mauve to his Dickensian frontispiece. "Can I have a bananananana flavour one?"


Six hours later Bernard looked down at the finally-sleeping figure of his unexpected son with something approaching satisfaction. A moment later, his face contorted with the passage of a worrying thought, and he dived into the corridor. "Manny! Manny!"

Manny's betoweled head poked around the edge of the bathroom door.

"There's a child asleep in my bed," Bernard hissed, his voice a strangled whisper and his hair a Lovecraftian nightmare.

"Oh, he's finally off –"

"Where the hell am I going to sleep? I can't sleep in there, he'll wee on me or something. Or I'll catch paedophilia from the mattress and wake up on the front page of The Sun!"

Manny sighed the deep and hopeless sigh of a man who knows he has already lost the fight. He arranged the towel on his hair and tied up his dressing gown, stepped out of the bathroom and said with heavy resignation, "you can have my bed then."

Bernard baulked. "I'm not sleeping with you, I'll wake up dead from that vicious beast on your head throttling me. I know it wants my throat."

"Fine," Manny sighed. "I'll sleep on the sofa. With the mice. And the cockroaches. At least the cockroaches don't complain about my hair."

"That's what you think," Bernard called back over his shoulder, already diving into Manny's room with relief pouring off him like sweat.


It was not unusual for Bernard to wake to the sound of bird song, or more accurately bird coughing, the sunlight stealing arthritically through the eye-watering stench of his bedroom. It was more usual for him to be woken by swearwords from the building site behind the shop or the spit and clang of antique plumbing fighting to the death with Manny's fur; it was quite beyond the realms of probability that he'd wake up feeling even remotely refreshed and without the back of his nostrils clogged in defence from the smell of his bedsheets.

"Argh," Bernard groaned, groping at the bed. "Argh!"

He groped for a moment longer before prying open a crusted eyelid and wincing at the bright light. "Have I died?" he mumbled to himself, squinting. The sheets were clean. The daylight was shimmering through drawn curtains. There was a mirror on the wall. It was only when he took in the enormous poster of The Sweeney on the wall opposite him and the much more demure charcoal drawing of David Beckham that he remembered where he was.

"ARGH," Bernard said with considerably more force, and stumbled out of bed. He barrelled across the room with the momentum of horror and snatched the meticulous drawing off the wall. It crumpled in his fist as he peered at it. "Rubbish," he pronounced, screwing the photo-realistic work into a ball and popping it into his mouth.

Downstairs was suspiciously quiet. No customers – Bernard realised that this was because the front door was locked after some in-depth investigation – and no small child. There was also no Manny – blessed peace! Freedom from having to stare at a carpeted orc! – which meant no breakfast. Bernard settled himself down in his chair, folded his arms, and prepared himself for a protracted sulk.

It didn't last long, and he was just lighting his fourth cigarette and wondering whether the rest of the world had been eaten by zombies (although the impatient queue of customers outside the locked door, banging on the glass window might have undermined that theory) when the door opened.

"Just where the hell have you been?" he snarled, as Manny and his charge elbowed their way through a parade of irate customers and staggered to a pink-cheeked halt before the desk. "I have been starving to death here with a terrible, terrible headache and you have not been here to care for me!"

"I did leave you a note," Manny sighed, patting Max on the back and gesturing to the children's section.

"Note? What note? I didn't get any note!" Bernard barked. "Don't try to excuse yourself with mythical missives, young man – "

Manny pointed wordlessly to the scrap of paper pinned to Bernard's coat lapel. Bernard snatched it off and squinted. "Taken pox –"

"Max."

"- to the stork –"

"Park."

"Back after paunch?"

"Lunch. We weren't gone long. You could easily have foraged for yourself in the kitchen." Manny gave him a put-upon look and then glanced over his shoulder as Max returned with a copy of Five Go Mad and Stab Each Other.

"Well why didn't you wake me? I could have come with you!"

Manny boggled. "Bernard … you hate the park. You said it was a cesspit of corruption and miniature pimps and last time we were there you tried to beat up the ice-cream man. Why would you have come with us?"

Bernard looked awkwardly at the desk. "Oh, you know. Balloons. Feeding the ducks."

"We did all that!" Manny gave Bernard a puzzled look. "You hate children and you hate the park. What's the problem?"

"Yes, but he's my son –" Bernard snapped, and stopped.

"What?" Manny looked as though he'd been slapped in the face with a haddock.

"Muffle the child," Bernard instructed, lighting his fifth cigarette and waving at Max, who was apparently oblivious. He was still clad in his tutu, Bernard noted without much interest. "He's not to know."

Manny obligingly put his hands over Max's ears. "Go on."

"You remember how I told you that Fran and I absolutely didn't have sex ever and particularly not New Year's Eve about, oh, five years ago?" Bernard mumbled, shoving the cigarette between his lips and trying to flatten his hair.

"Oh," Manny said, keeping his hands pressed firmly over Max's ears.

"Yes," Bernard said in a subdued voice. "Oh."

Manny released Max, who plonked his book on the desk and said in an affronted voice, "It's rubbish."

Bernard peered at the cover. "It's a children's book. It's meant to be rubbish. Only grown-ups are allowed good books."

"When can I read grown-ups books?"

Bernard reached behind him and picked up a copy of The Decameron with an engraved cover. He put it on the desk in front of Max. "You can start now."

Max regarded the book – which was larger than his head – dispassionately. "Is there magic in it?"

"Probably."

"Is there killings in it?"

"Yes."

"Is there robots in it?"

"Tell me what you did in the park," Bernard shouted, snatching the book away. "Did that fool teach you to feed ducks properly?"

"A dog chased Uncle Manny all around the park trying to bite him in the bottom and then Uncle Manny had to hide under the ice cream van," Max said triumphantly. "It was funny. Uncle Manny sounds like a girl."

"Uncle Manny?" Bernard exclaimed, apparently scandalised at the very idea. "That bipedal bezoar isn't your uncle. I … I am."

Max shrugged. "The doggy didn't bite him," he said, sounding somewhat put out.

"Next time," Bernard promised, and slapped the desk between Max's arms. "Next time I will take you to the park and we will have ice-cream and if a dog doesn't bite Uncle Manny I shall bite him myself."


The rest of the weekend passed in a blur: Max scaled the bookshelves, and Bernard sent Manny up to fetch him. Ice-creams were purchased and eaten in uniformity. Scrabble was played (Bernard sulked for an hour when both Max and Manny called him on his use of "ex-vin1", claiming that it was not only a made-up word by also immensely hypocritical to use any word he defined as meaning "no longer a wine-drinker" when he'd got a bottle of Ariston Bay clamped between his thighs), Bernard bribed Max with a crisp new fiver to shave Manny with beard trimmers while Manny was preoccupied; Manny gave Max ten pounds to cut Bernard's hair as he dozed through Sunday lunch, and later a conspicuously unshaven and untrimmed Bernard and Manny held the boy upside down and tickled him until he relinquished the £15 for pizza delivery.

"Your son is a criminal," Manny hissed disapprovingly as Bernard handed two very crumpled and sticky notes to the pizza delivery man. Manny had an angry-looking bite-mark on the back of his hand.

"He's not criminal," Bernard said primly, snatching up the pizza box, "he's fiscally gifted."

"Are you sure he's your son then?" Manny muttered.

At eight on Sunday evening came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at the bookshop door. When no one answered Fran kicked the door open and glared into the gloom, a gloom only illuminated by the desktop anglepoise. In its freakish shadows she could see Bernard, asleep half on the bookshop couch and half on Manny, and Manny asleep on Bernard, with a book on his head and his hair in pigtails. Bernard sported a fetching felt-tip moustache and the word "POO" in wobbly capitals on his cheek.

Behind the desk – Fran gave a start – behind the desk sat a small figure clad in a Hawaiian shirt that was too large for him, intently scribbling in a ledger. His thick, black hair stood in a thicket of tangles that looked worryingly familiar, and from his mouth protruded –

"Are you smoking?" Fran asked in muted horror.

Max removed the white stick and its bulbous top with a pop like a gunshot. "Lolly," he said succinctly.

Fran stalked across the bookshop and tucked her son under her arm with some difficulty.

"Ow! Hey!"

"Come on. You're not coming back to Uncle Bernard's again." She struggled back towards the door, Max hanging limp and awkward as a very heavy sack of potatoes at her side.

"But I like it here," Max whined.

"Yes, well, he's a – a – a Death Eater," Fran said desperately. "Come on."

"Oh," Max said in a dejected voice. "He said he was a robot from the future."

The door slammed behind them and Bernard and Manny sat up immediately. "Has she gone?" Bernard croaked, although it was quite obvious that she had.

"More to the point, has he gone?" Manny sniffed the air. "It still smells of child in here. I'm glad that's over. It makes you realise what kind of responsibility goes into raising a – Bernard? Bernard?"

But Bernard had gone back to sleep again, and his legs pinned Manny to the couch.

"Oh, stuff it," Manny grumbled, and he made himself comfortable again.


1. The word and the definition are liberally stolen from the CSI episode in which a Logos champion is murdered.