Pens of the Earth: Every Little Helps

By Sue Shipp

It all started last month, when Myra got a bit upset with Camilla. Camilla’s our Eco queen. Myra’s the exact opposite. So, once the issue of plastic raised itself, there was bound to be friction.

Started with plastic carrier bags, of all things.

The ‘girls’, as we still call ourselves, met at my place, 18 The Green, for our monthly book club session, normally held in the afternoon of the last Saturday of the month. We take it in turn who we go to, but when it’s my house, Myra does a bit of a shop before arriving, which always has her running late.

I’d just poured four glasses of chilled Pinot Grigio. Kathryn, whose nominated book The Cactus by Sarah Hayward was up for discussion, had asked what we thought of the book overall, when Myra burst in carrying a couple of bulging plastic bags. Dumping them on the floor, she dragged out two 4-litre plastic bottles of milk and, without asking, marched to the kitchen and plonked them in the fridge.

Camilla scowled at the bags, then as Myra returned and flopped down next to her on the two-seater sofa, she moved her hessian shopping bag away from them.

Myra arched her eyebrows, and snapped, ‘If you’ve got something to say, just damn well say it!’

‘I wasted my time giving you those hessian bags. I keep telling you –’

Before Camilla could finish, Kathryn was up on her feet, flapping a copy of The Cactus in the air, saying, ‘Myra, I’d just asked what everyone thought about The Cactus. Perhaps you’d like to start us off?’

As she sat down, I poured a glass of Pinot for Myra, pushed it across the coffee table towards her and was just thinking yet another squabble over plastic had been averted, when Rosie popped up and said it wasn’t her type of book, so she didn’t finish it. And, as always, she went right off topic and started talking about researchers in Mexico, who are working on creating a biodegradable plastic from the juice of the prickly pear cactus.

Apparently it’s changed from its original form using non-toxic materials, so isn’t harmful to the environment, or to animals or marine life who might eat it.

We were all nodding, saying what an exciting concept it was, except Myra, who rolled her eyes and huffed, ‘I really don’t see why there’s such a hoo-ha about plastic. It’s been around for years.’

Camilla’s scowl deepened. Before she could reply I jumped in, saying,

‘That’s the problem. We’ve been using the stuff for decades. It’s causing no end of issues. Bea had to choose an environmental topic to research and write about for her school summer project. She’s chosen the effect of plastic in the sea. So, we’ve been looking at the Surfers Against Sewage website which says two-thirds of it comes from land based sources. It’s not just plastic bags, it’s all types of plastic, killing off birds and marine life at an alarming rate.’

I saw Myra was far from warming to the topic, so I asked what her Mike thought of it, what with him being a diver.

As it turned out, that was completely the wrong thing to say.

Her face turned an unhealthy red, as she blurted out, ‘I wouldn’t know. I’ve chucked him out. For good this time. I’m sick of his bloody lies, and the reek of Beyonce’s Midnight Heat. You don’t get that from diving, do you?’

Glaring at us, Myra gulped down a mouthful of wine. ‘It’s alright for you lot. You don’t have to work. Mike’s refusing to cough up any money, so I’ve asked to go full-time.’ She choked down another mouthful. ‘I know you all think I’m just being bloody minded, but I don’t have the money or the time to worry about buying beeswax covers and shopping at plastic-free shops.’

An uncomfortable hush fell on the room.

It was Kathryn who broke the silence, offering to help out where she could. Her and Myra have known each other since their first day at school, so it was quite natural she would take the lead on this, whilst we murmured in agreement.

The rest of the afternoon was, as you would imagine, quite subdued. So it wasn’t until they were ready to leave that I suggested, instead of meeting for the Book Club next month, we take the kids to the beach and do a mini beach clean. You don’t need permission if it’s less than 15 people, according to Surfers Against Sewage. And, of course, it would help Bea with her project, in which she had to say what she had done – or could have done – to help with the environmental project she’d chosen.

Only Myra remained silent, until Kathryn said, ‘Come on Myra, it’ll be nice for the kids to get together and if you don’t want to help with the clean, you can sit and catch a few rays.’

Myra shrugged, then said, ‘I’ll come, but I’m not trawling the beach picking up other peoples’ rubbish, and neither are my kids.’


So, Saturday 26th July found us lugging an inordinate amount of folding chairs, cool bags and kids down to the Eastney end of the beach, away from the choking fumes of single use BBQ trays. It’s much quieter at that end of the seafront, the shingle populated with hardy plants that tolerate exposure and salt spray.

Camilla said it had been designated as a local wildlife site. As always, she brought everything eco-wrapped in beeswax covers. I noticed Kathryn now had some too, and made a mental note to ask where they got them. Me and Rosemary had food in reusable containers. We’d been shopping earlier in the day at the new food shop in Southsea. No plastic there – your own containers or nothing. Only Myra brought everything in cling-film or single use containers. She set them out with a bullish attitude.

For once, Camilla stayed silent, which I thought was a promising start.

We had a bit of food, played a few games with the kids, and then, leaving Myra reading a book, we pulled on our gardening gloves, grabbed the recyclable bags and moved to the far end of the beach. Orla, Myra’s eldest, wandered down to the shoreline, her long legs brown from the summer sun.

We’d been walking in a straight line, like the police do when looking for evidence in a field, picking up debris and placing it into the bags, when we heard Orla shouting, ‘Mum … Mum, help me!’

Looking up I could see Orla, thigh deep in the water, splashing her way towards the shore, hauling something behind her.

Well, Myra might be a bit on the chubby side, but she was up and into a sprint that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a running track.

By the time we reached them, having left the younger kids under Bea’s control, they’d dragged a tangle of net and plastic up onto the shore and, on their knees, were working at the mess covering most of what turned out to be a large, but emaciated seabird.

Myra sat back on her haunches.

‘It’s no good,’ she said. ‘It’s dead. Must have died out at sea. Poor thing.’

The cause of death was pretty obvious. One of the plastic rings from a multipack was firmly entangled in and around its beak, the rest still trailing. They say the rings become brittle and decompose after about four weeks, but that’s no good when you need to eat your own body weight each day to survive.

Without another word, Myra, marched back up the beach. Pulling on her shoes, she picked up a recyclable bag and waited for us to join her.


Sue’s inspiration: ‘I wanted to write a story showing how anyone, in their own small way, can do something to help the environment.’

Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.

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