The registrar sat us down four months in to ask how we were getting on. “No problems so far, then?” was how she phrased it. “No little niggles?”
We looked down at the table. Once, we would have looked at each other. We used to find her funny, the registrar, with her starchy, middle-aged tunic tops and her thickly fleshed face. She was always nice to us. But there was something antiquated about her. There was often lipstick on her front teeth.
I remember the day of the ceremony, how tactfully she handled the whole thing. She waited until afterwards, in the car park, when my sister was putting the marriage certificate safely into her car so she could go and get drunk at the party. The registrar lingered, holding something under her stiff blue jacket. She approached my sister. “I can leave this with you, I suppose? It’ll be alright in the car for a few hours.” My sister, five years married herself, knew the drill: “Sure, bung him in. They can collect him tomorrow.” So we spent our first night of marriage without Neigle.
When my sister came round to the hotel the next morning, I won’t deny it was a shock. She had put Neigle inside a carpet bag and she handed him over with a bracing look and an assurance that we would get used to it, as everyone did.
At first we couldn’t even see him. I have vivid memories of reaching into the carpet bag and feeling for his tiny, horse-like form, the barely-there weight of him. His skin was softly haired. I felt laden then, encumbered, the way people must feel when the doctor hands them a baby and they can’t put it down for the next eighteen years. Except, in Neigle’s case, it was forever, as marriages are supposed to be.
Things weren’t so bad to begin with. He was relatively undemanding, and besides, we were on honeymoon: touring the Rockies in an RV. He was good as gold during the flight, nestled first on my lap, then on Rob’s while I slept. We would hold him up to the windows as we drove and sit him on restaurant tables. We still couldn’t see him, but we always knew where he was. Sometimes older couples seemed able to see him. When we said we were on our honeymoon they would get an expressive look, congratulate us and start peering into the air where he was, giving little appreciative nods.
In turn, we admired their marriages. One couple had a beautiful, silver-coloured stag, which stepped delicately behind them as they walked. Two women in their forties had a maroon dragon. We gazed in envy, wondering how Neigle would look when he was older.
The registrar was still waiting for a response. She had a knowing look, as though she wasn’t really expecting us to tell her anything anyway.
“It’s just,” I said, “it’s one of those things no one really warns you about.”
We took him back to Scotland after the honeymoon. He struggled to adjust. He was like a newborn puppy at first, tailing us wherever we went, unable to let us out of his sight. When we weren’t together, he cried and panicked. We took turns taking him into work. I would hide him in my handbag. Rob put him in the old carpet bag, though he was rapidly outgrowing it. I could hear him crying sometimes under my desk, wriggling around in the handbag, looking for the warmth of my lap. My married colleagues understood and sympathised. The single ones hadn’t a clue.
About a month after the honeymoon, we had the first fight of our marriage. It was over something stupid, hairs on the bathroom soap, maybe, I don’t remember. I stormed off to sleep on the sofa. Neigle stayed upstairs with Rob, as though he could sense that I was in the wrong. When I woke up, my foolish anger had burned away and I felt sore with guilt. I went upstairs and saw Neigle for the first time: a black, tiny creature, like a miniature foal, curled asleep on the pillow next to Rob’s head. I sat gently on the bed in wonderment. Rob woke and groaned, and I put a finger to his lips, turned his face to the side, showed him the shape of our marriage. Neigle opened his tiny eyes and whinnied.
He continued to grow. Having overcome the shock of his presence, we started to find enjoyment in little things: Neigle’s first trip to a zoo, introducing him to friends, his antics in coffee shops. He would whicker at neighbouring tables, snatch crumbs of cake or try to run round behind the counter. He was outgoing and liked to meet other people’s marriages. He would bounce up to strangers in the street, still small but clearly visible now, and dance on his front hooves until their marriage bowed its head to say hello to him. Occasionally he would get snapped at for this behaviour. Not all marriages are harmless. A large grey boar with scars on its snout once tried to headbutt Neigle when he got too close. We snatched him away, stunned. The couple responsible only shrugged at us with tired eyes and walked heavily away. We became more adept at assessing this kind of danger. We would look for signs: scars, missing patches of fur, twisted whiskers. Some marriages have been through the wars, and it shows.
We visited my sister. She and Jamie had two kids by this point, both boys, both frantically destructive. Neigle loved them. He scampered with them round the living room while Lou and Jamie’s marriage, a strong bullmastiff, sat by Jamie’s chair wearing an expression of infinite patience. I had never really noticed the bullmastiff before, which seemed very strange now. I watched him while we chatted and ate Lou’s homemade scones. The bullmastiff let the two boys climb all over him, pull his ears, draw patterns in his fur. He even let Neigle wriggle in between his front paws and lick his enormous sopping chin. It was hard for me to imagine Neigle ever displaying this kind of serenity, but then he was still very young.
I found a quiet moment in the kitchen to ask my sister how she thought Neigle was doing. Lou smiled and wiped her forehead with the back of one hand. “He’s a wee cracker,” she said, and added mysteriously: “Whatever it is, don’t worry about it. Just give it time.”
I was a bit nonplussed, because I thought everything was going fine. But after that visit, maybe because I was looking out for it, I started to notice small oddities in Neigle’s behaviour. He had a habit of obsessively licking Rob’s hands while we were watching TV. This had always seemed cute to me, but I wondered now if it was some kind of anxiety symptom. He also wasn’t a good sleeper. I woke frequently in the night to find Neigle pacing up and down across the duvet, his little hooves clicking into my back.
One night, I woke up and Neigle wasn’t there at all. I prodded Rob in alarm and we searched the room, then the house. Eventually we found him in the kitchen. He had wriggled in behind the dishwasher and was mewling in lost little wails. Rob pulled the dishwasher forward and we got him out, but he was very distressed. I sat with him in the armchair, shushing and stroking his soft hair. I was crying. Rob moved from room to room, rubbing his stubble. He kept saying, “But everything’s been fine. Everything’s been great.”
I wondered if maybe we weren’t paying Neigle enough attention. We were both busy with work at that point, and most of our free time was spent either seeing friends or doing up the house. Rob blew out his cheeks at this suggestion: “But he’s always with us! He’s not neglected, he’s not ignored. This is ridiculous.”
Neigle whimpered. He was pressing his little horse-face into my chest, whickering in fright. “It’s okay, wee guy,” I whispered, but I didn’t know if it was. I didn’t know what was wrong with us.
The registrar cleared her throat. “Well, unless there’s anything specific, it sounds like you’re doing a grand job. And I can see that Neigle’s a very healthy boy.”
Neigle was sitting on my lap. He looked up at her tentatively, far from his usual exuberant self. He hadn’t even tried to say hello to her marriage, a long-limbed and sharp-featured serval, which was curled underneath the table with its eyes closed.
“So if there’s nothing else?” said the registrar. She smiled. We were dismissed.
Outside her office, we stood in the cold street and did nothing for a moment. Rob wasn’t looking at me. I put Neigle down and he frolicked half-heartedly around a lamppost.
“Glad that’s over,” I said to Rob. I was trying to sound funny.
Rob looked at me then. “Maybe we should have said something.”
He sighed through his nose. “Okay.”
“No,” I said hurriedly. “I just mean — you know, what specifically? You mean about the dishwasher?”
“I don’t know,” he said. His shoulders seemed small and his eyes were far away.
“Maybe it’s like this for everyone.”
“I think it is,” I said, clenching my fingers together. “I think it’s never perfect. I mean, we’re doing okay. I think, anyway.”
Rob gave me a small smile. Neigle ran back to us and butted his little muzzle against our shins. We both crouched down to him and patted him. His eyes were bright and his hair seemed thick and glossy in the grey light.
“Has he grown again?” Rob asked.
An old couple came along the pavement towards us. They had a pram with them, which I assumed must contain their grandchild, out for a walk. But as they got closer, as we stood up to let them pass, I saw that inside the pram was their marriage: a small ape, maybe a chimpanzee, white-haired with age, tucked in among the blankets and pillows.
The old man said to us, “Nice day.”
It wasn’t, but we both agreed. I couldn’t stop staring at the thing in the pram.
“Who’s this, then,” the old woman said in a kind voice to Neigle.
Rob picked Neigle up and introduced him. The old woman gently stroked his soft nose. “A lovely name,” she said.
“This is ours,” said the old man. “Astrid, she’s called. She’s an old, old girl now.”
We murmured our congratulations.
“She wasn’t always in the best of health,” said the man. “Mostly my fault, that. But we looked after her. She’s doing well now. Aren’t you, old girl?”
He stroked the little ape’s cheek with one finger. She opened her eyes and looked up at him adoringly. I noticed that her wrists above the pink blankets were bandaged.
“There’s nothing that can’t be fixed,” said the old woman. She crinkled her eyes at Neigle, and then at me.
We smiled back politely. The old couple moved off, pushing the pram along the pavement. Rob put his arm around me and we held Neigle between us, his little hooves dangling, his breath clouding the cold air. We were only four months in.