Construct a Couple

By: Talli Roland


If there was a Good Girlfriend award, I’d definitely be a contender.

Pasta boiled with no burnt bits? Check.

Bottle of Merlot (not the cheapest in the shop) ready to go? Yup.

Ambient lighting without setting the tablecloth on fire? Done! Extra bonus: in the romantic glow, you can’t see my stained T-shirt, the result of an earlier tussle with an angry tomato. Who knew juice could squirt so far?

I gaze around the room, nodding smugly. Forget award contender, I’d win! The space looks straight from Hello! magazine – minus the tangerine celebs – just awaiting the laughing, loving couple.

Okay, so it’s not my kitchen. I didn’t choose the slate tiles, handcrafted cupboards or heavy pine table. But after all the time I’ve spent here at Jeremy’s in the past year, it’s more like home than my grungy little bedsit ever will be, no matter how much cheap wine I ingest.

I glance at my watch – almost seven. Where on earth is he? Really, there should be a law against working on Sundays. I shake my head, thinking it’s not only Sundays he’s been at the office late. My boyfriend runs Pick Up Sticks, a charity dedicated to refurbishing stroke victims’ houses, so those with mobility issues can live independently. The cause is near and dear to his heart, since he suffered a stroke last year when an operation went wrong. He’d barely recovered before setting up the organisation, and for the past couple months, he’s worked harder than ever.

Tension clenches my gut as I picture Jeremy’s pale, anxious expression, and the permanent fatigue hanging over him like a cloud. But whenever I ask if he’s all right, he nods, forces a grin, and pulls me into his arms. And I’m not going to complain about extra snuggles, am I?

Tonight, with his award-winning Good Girlfriend and spotless home, everything will be perfect. No worries, no troubles, just great food and lots of laughs. It’s a night to celebrate, too, because tomorrow I start my new job at Seven Days! I, Serenity Holland from small-town Maine, will be working at the Sunday magazine of The Herald, the UK’s most respected newspaper. I’ll rub shoulders with big-name journalists like Helen Goodall and, um . . . others whose names I can’t quite recall.

I’m only a lowly fact-checker, but that’s fine. I’ll learn the ropes and impress everyone with my meticulous attention to detail. Then, after proving I’m more than capable, I’ll be promoted to a full-fledged journalist at an intelligent newspaper where people can believe what they read. I’m going to break serious stories, make a difference, bring down corrupt MPs (shouldn’t be too hard; there seem to be plenty) . . . basically, I’ll be a twenty-first century Lois Lane, without the glossy swinging bob and tidy trouser suit. Wrinkling my nose, I eye my distorted reflection in the kettle’s shiny surface. Yup, definitely not squeaky clean Lois Lane. My round cheeks are flushed from cooking, and sandy strands straggle from a limp ponytail. Right now, I’m more sweaty slob than well-groomed reporter.

“Serenity?” Jeremy’s voice drifts from the entrance, and the door thuds. Smoothing my hair (ugh, my hands are covered in olive oil), I pad down the hallway towards him.

“Hey, there.” He grins, then sniffs the air. “Are you cooking? Something smells good. Surprisingly.”

“Watch it!” I punch him lightly on the arm. “Thought I’d welcome you back with some pasta. You’ve been working so hard, and . . .” I bite my lip to stop worry pouring out.

“Thanks, Ser. I am exhausted, must admit.” As Jeremy leans in to kiss me, I notice his face is paler than this morning.

“Come sit down,” I say, before he collapses. “I’ll bring you a glass of wine.”

“Thanks. God knows I could use some wine therapy right about now.” He shrugs off a corduroy jacket.

I can’t help rolling my eyes and laughing, despite my anxiety. “You know, that really should be a therapeutic method,” I say over my shoulder as we head into the kitchen.

“It’s certainly therapeutic for me.” Jeremy sinks onto the wooden bench by the table. In the flickering light of the candles, his cheeks look hollow and the dark circles under his eyes more pronounced.

“Maybe you should take it easy this week.” The words burst from me as I scoot onto the bench beside him. Jeremy needs to rest if he’s tired, or he could end up in the hospital – just like a couple months ago, when he developed pneumonia. An image of him lying in a narrow bed struggling to breathe comes to mind, and I wince. Pressing even closer, I inhale his spicy cologne, feeling my tension ease. Something about his scent feels like home.