Marcus sat on the edge of the bed and stretched his arms. He enjoyed a shudder that rippled through his shoulders. His body slumped, and his girlfriend emitted a grunt, turned over, and returned to her sleep.
On the opposite pavement he saw the woman from number thirty-two taking her two miniature elephants for a walk. He checked his watch. She was more punctual than the old clock in the hall downstairs, which only then chimed seven times.
People used to be content with traditional pets. There had always been a few who kept snakes, lizards, spiders, but they never paraded them on the street. There were certainly no giant ants with gem-studded leather collars being taken for a walk in the park. He shuddered at the memory of one he had seen a few days before and a chill ran through his body.
It was Saturday. No real need for him to be up so early. He picked up the clothes he had worn the previous evening and crept out of the bedroom. The sun was already streaming through the bathroom window. He leaned both hands on the sink and assessed his reflection in the mirror. Forty-two tomorrow. The first flecks of grey were showing in his hair and he wondered whether he should dye it or let himself age gracefully. He sighed, aware that his life was drifting past and nothing ever changed.
Sally would probably stay in bed until noon if he didn’t wake her. At least he could have the place to himself for a few more hours, but first, Geoffrey had to be fed.
Sally and Marcus had drifted into living together after they graduated. She had made it clear that she never intended to have children and didn’t believe in marriage. At twenty-two Marcus had shared her enthusiasm for a life fulfilled by a career and travel. Twenty years later they both recognised the hollowness that was never mentioned.
Geoffrey was calling from the garden. He hadn’t proved popular with their neighbours because he liked looking over the fence at them. Marcus had no idea why that would bother them as Geoffrey was completely harmless. Sally had set her heart on a miniature giraffe from the day she decided they should get a pet.
“They’re incredibly intelligent,” she told him. “And the new breeds can even vocalise their thoughts.”
“But they don’t really talk, do they? You shouldn’t believe the ads.”
Marcus offered half-hearted objections. He would have preferred a cat that might curl up on his lap in the evenings.
“Don’t be so boring,” Sally had said. “Cats shed hair everywhere and you have feed them meat. I don’t want any of that stuff in the house.”
“But they say giraffes need a partner. They pine if they’re alone.”
The morning air tasted like crisp lettuce when Marcus opened the back door. Geoffrey’s head was poking over the top half of the makeshift stable door on their garden shed.
“Morning Geoffrey, I bet you’re excited today?”
“Yeth,” came the clumsily voiced reply.
Although Geoffrey could talk, his vocabulary was severely limited, and his long tongue tended to spray saliva whenever he responded.
“Don’t fret, we’re not meeting her until later this morning, so plenty of time to get you looking your best.
Sally had made all the arrangements through an app she had downloaded. Petter – the dating app for animals. For someone so intelligent Sally often acted on impulse without thinking of the consequences. They had both tried to include Geoffrey in the selection process, but he had turned out to be too easy to please and wanted them to right-swipe every profile they showed him. Sally finally lost patience and judged his enthusiasm by how far his tongue hung out when she showed him a picture. On one occasion he had even tried to lick the screen. That was how she made her final choice.
Marcus hooked back both sections of the stable door and Geoffrey picked his way out into the garden, stretching his head up to its full extent and nuzzling Marcus’s neck.
“Why don’t you have some breakfast while I clear out your hay.”
“Kay,” he said, dampening Marcus’s collar with his tongue.
Geoffrey looked around the garden as if seeing it for the first time. His joy at noticing fresh young leaves on a favourite tree never failed to bring a smile to Marcus’s face. Over time Marcus had become quite good at recognising Geoffrey’s expressions and rather enjoyed the monosyllabic conversations they had. He felt that Geoffrey paid more attention to him than Sally.
Geoffrey was not much bigger than a dog, not counting the length of his neck, and easier to handle than an elephant would have been. Their garden backed onto the park and small gate gave them direct access. Marcus had finished clearing out Geoffrey’s shed and put all the used straw on the compost heap when Sally appeared at the back door. She was already dressed, in jeans and an old baggy sweatshirt. A mug of coffee held in both hands.
“We need to talk Marcus.”
“I’ve got to put some fresh hay down for Geoffrey then I’ll be in for breakfast.”
Sally didn’t say anything. She turned and went back into the kitchen. When he had finished, he found her sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the mug still encased by her hands. Marcus saw that she was holding it so tightly her knuckles had bleached.
“I’m leaving. Today actually.”
Sally travelled quite a lot in her job as a corporate lawyer, but rarely at such short notice.
“But it’s Saturday.”
“I’m leaving us, leaving you, leaving the house.” She barked a short laugh. “In fact, I’m leaving the country.”
“I don’t understand.”
Sally sighed and looked at him. She had her serious, professional face on, the one she used to explain aspects of her work that he could never quite grasp.
“You, me, it’s not been working for years. We’ve grown out of each other. You have a closer relationship with Geoffrey than you do with me.”
“That’s not fair. Geoffrey was your idea. You can’t blame me just because you got bored with him.”
Sally looked down at her mug and mumbled under her breath. “It’s not Geoffrey I’m bored with.”
She spoke so quietly that he almost missed it.
“That’s it then? No discussion, no…” He couldn’t think what to add.
“I have a taxi coming in half an hour. My bags are packed, they’re in the spare room. You can have the house, the furniture, and Geoffrey. I’ll sort out the legal side when I get to New York.”
“I’ve been head hunted. Somebody wanted me. It’s all happened very fast. I had to decide what was best – for both of us.”
“Don’t I get a say in this? Don’t I get to put my case for the defence?”
“I’m not that sort of lawyer Marcus. You should know that after twenty years.”
Sally was looking over his shoulder, her face impassive. Marcus turned to see Geoffrey in the doorway. He wasn’t allowed in the house.
“Go. Now. Pleath.”
“You need to take him on his date.” Sally said.
“And I suppose you’ll be gone when I get back?”
Sally pushed an envelope towards Marcus. She put her house keys on top of it, complete with the penguin key ring he had bought her.
“I thought about leaving without saying anything. I didn’t want a scene.”
Marcus turned to tell Geoffrey to tell him to wait at the gate. He heard Sally’s chair squeak against the floor as she stood up.
“So that’s it?”
Sally walked out into the hall, closing the kitchen door behind her. Marcus heard her carry her bags downstairs, it took two trips. The front door barely made a sound other than the latch springing back into its keep.
Marcus distracted himself by brushing Geoffrey’s coat, who giggled in his throat every time the brush crept down the back of his spindly legs. Despite the shock of Sally’s departure, Marcus still found himself smiling at Geoffrey’s ticklishness. Maybe he hadn’t put up much of a fight because he knew, deep down, that she was right, their relationship had run its course. Maybe he was feeling disgruntled because she had been the one to act.
The hall clock struck eleven and Marcus checked his watch. He was late, only by a few minutes, but he hated being late. Quickly checking the front door was locked, he grabbed Sally’s keys off the table and fastened a collar round Geoffrey’s neck.
“Come on Geoffrey, or we’ll be late for your date.”
Geoffrey was straining at the leash as they left through the garden gate. He kept looking back at Marcus who was, by that point, jogging to keep up with him.
The meeting was to be by the boating pond. Marcus was cursing that they would be late, hoping for Geoffrey’s sake that the other person would wait. He had left in such haste that he had forgotten his phone, but she should be easy to spot, not many people would be loitering in the park with a miniature giraffe in tow.
A woman was sitting on a bench by the pond, leaning back, head tilted up to the sun. A retractable lead allowed the object of Geoffrey’s desire to drink from the pond. Geoffrey made a low, sustained humming noise and the other giraffe looked up immediately. Marcus walked Geoffrey towards the bench and let go of his leash. He was pretty sure Geoffrey wasn’t going to run away.
“I’m sorry,” Marcus said to the girl on the bench. “I don’t know your name. My partner made all the arrangements.”
“Jenny,” she said, smiling. “You must be Marcus.”
“Yes. I don’t really know how this works, with Geoffrey and..?”
“She’s called Chelsea.”
Both of them looked at the two giraffes who had their necks almost looped round each other, bodies leaning together. Jenny looked back at Marcus.
“I guess we just see if they get along.”
“Well,” he said after a moment or two. “I think we know the answer to that one.”
Jenny sighed, and Marcus looked sideways at her. She was watching Chelsea and Geoffrey. Her eyes were dark pools of liquid. She was close to tears. Sally had often accused him of being over sentimental. He knew Jenny was upset about parting with Chelsea and his instinct was to give her a reassuring hug, but he didn’t know her well and feared offending her.
“You can come and see her whenever you want,” he took a breath, “or Geoffrey could maybe live with you and Chelsea?”
Marcus didn’t want to lose Geoffrey, he was the only stable thing in his life right now.
“Thank you for offering but it’s not possible right now. I have to move.”
“No,” she swallowed hard. “New life.”
Marcus nodded even though he wasn’t sure what she meant.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to burden you with my problems.”
“No, it’s okay. I have plenty of time if you want to talk. And those two seem happy enough for the moment.”
“Thanks.” Sally took a deep breath and sighed. “I’ve had a shit month. I’ve split up with my boyfriend, or rather he split up with me.”
“Ah, I know that feeling.”
“I have to move to somewhere smaller, can’t afford the rent on the house by myself. So, it’s find somewhere cheaper, or move back with my parents – and at thirty-five that would not be a cool choice.”
“You could look for a house share.”
“I’ll put an ad in the local paper shall I?” Sally laughed and her face lit up. “Recently dumped woman and small giraffe looking for a bedroom and share of a garden.”
Marcus didn’t think before speaking.
“I’ve got a spare room.”
Geoffrey and Chelsea were looking at them. Both hummed softly.