Adrian Sturrock: ‘The best thing about the new 5p carrier bag charge is that the cupboard next to our sink is now worth £2,987.’

     ‘Stop!’ I shout, as my wife reaches into our kitchen cupboard and pulls out an old plastic Marks & Spencer bag to put rubbish into.

     ‘What?’

     ‘Don’t use that one.’

     She turns the bag over in her hand. ‘Why not?’

     ‘That could be a collector’s item, one day.’

     Nat looks at me, then back at the bag, before rolling her eyes and continuing to pour her rubbish into it.

     ‘You’ll regret it when our currency plummets and it’s only our carrier bags we have left to barter with.’

     ‘If we ever get to that stage,’ she says, ‘I’ll probably sell you for medical experiments and make up the shortfall that way.’

     Bag-for-life suddenly takes on a whole new meaning in my mind. ‘I see how it is,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

It’s all David Attenborough’s fault, of course. First it was plastic straws polluting the sea, then it was vast floating islands of carrier bags that could be seen from space, and now it’s the ocean of self-blame that I carry with me regarding how people I can’t control package my food.

     I care, but I’m frustrated. In fact, I’m frustrated because I care. We’ve just shopped, and the inside of our fridge has suddenly become a potential subject for a thesis on environmental morality. I open the door and the light comes on to display a vulgar grotto of plastic packaging reminiscent of a dystopian game show grand prize reveal. These days, I find that I eat to forget as much as to hide the evidence. You can actually measure my guilt in calories.

     ‘This is the downside of online shopping,’ says Nat, ‘You click the product but you don’t always see the wrapping until it’s too late. ‘

     She’s got a point, but why does every convenience in life have to come with a moral price-tag? It took me three years to get her to agree to trying internet shopping – mainly because she says she prefers to squeeze her own fruit before she buys it.

     ‘But what about when you send me to buy the fruit?’ I say. ‘You don’t get to squeeze it then.’

     ‘I trust your squeeze,’ she says.

     I suddenly feel a wave of pride from this statement, though I’m not altogether sure why.

     ‘But the shop people are professional squeezers,’ I say, ‘They squeeze for a living. I can’t even claim to squeeze as a hobby.’

     ‘Where is this conversation going?’ she asks me.

     ‘… I’m really not sure,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

A few days later, there’s a knock at the door.

     ‘Is that my package?’ I ask Nat, as she moves to answer it.

     She stops in her tracks. ‘… Hang on … nope, my telepathic ability doesn’t seem to be working at the moment, I’m going to have to actually answer the door, this time.’

     ‘Have you tried switching it off and switching it back on again?’ I ask.

     She leaves the room.

     She comes back with a large parcel. ‘What is this?’ she asks, handing it to me.

     ‘I found an online shop that sells paper carrier bags,’ I say. I thought we could split the package in half and keep a stash of them in the boots of our cars – a first step towards cutting down on our plastics consumption?’

     ‘Tree murderer!’ she says.

     ‘I can’t win!’ I say, smiling.

     The irony of the fact that this supply of ‘eco-friendly’ shopping bags comes rolled up in its own plastic packaging doesn’t pass us by. ‘Small steps,’ I say. ‘Small steps, if we are going to stay ahead of al-Qaeda.’

     ‘What? Al-Qaeda?’

     ‘Apparently,’ I say, tilting the news item on my iPad towards her. ‘Al-Shabaab, the Somali militant Islamic off-shoot of al-Qaeda has already banned single use plastic bags, citing them as a serious threat to humans, livestock and the environment – just like the group itself, allegedly. I guess this technically makes them the world’s first “eco-friendly” jihadist movement.’

     Nat just looks at me.

     ‘Yes, me too,’ I say. ‘These aren’t words that I had expected to have fall out of my mouth before 8am on a week day.’

     ‘It doesn’t seem to matter what day or time it is,’ says Nat.

     ‘I’d hate to think about how this group goes about enforcing its ban, though’ I say, ignoring her.

     ‘If you’re seen with a plastic bag, you’ll probably end up with your head in it,’ Nat suggests.

     ‘I like that you always manage to disturb me just a little,’ I say.

     ‘Thank you,’ she says, coyly.

* * * * * * * *

Later that day, I’m driving home when Nat calls to ask if I can pick up some things on my way. This is clearly a rhetorical question as she has already texted me with ‘a small list’.

     ‘Sure you still trust me to squeeze for you?’ I ask.

     ‘Always,’ she says, and hangs up.

     The car park at Tesco is full when I get there so I’m forced to park at the very end of it, far from the shop’s entrance. Just my luck, it’s a horrible day of high winds and rain. Apparently, someone at the Met Office who’s job it is to name the weather tells me that this is Hurricane Gareth. ‘Must be a strange day job to have,’ I think to myself as I run across the car park, narrowly missing two cars and a runaway trolley.

     As I emerge from the shop, the rain is coming down harder. I race myself and my shopping across the car park, soaking us both by the time I’ve reached the car, fumbled for my keys, and got inside.

     This panic is repeated at the other end of the journey, once I’ve parked outside the house. The heavens are now fully open and I can feel the heavy rain drops patting me forcefully on the head as I get out of the car. I grab the shopping bags, which are now getting quite soggy, and turn to make a dash for the front door.

     Suddenly, I hear a crash and one of my bags feels lighter. A neighbour walking his dog stops to look at me. I look at him and then down at my feet. One of my new paper carrier bags has got so rain-soaked that it has split and emptied itself across the pavement. I look back up at the man with a sad expression on my face. ‘’My wine,’ I say. ‘It’s my wine.’

     I pick up as much of the broken glass as I can and wrap it in the remains of my paper bag. ‘Dereliction of duty, that’s what this is!’ I shout at the soggy remnants of my pro-environmental attempt.

     The man with the dog clearly decides that this is the time to walk on.

     Later, I get a text from Nat: ‘Did you manage to get everything on the list?’

     ‘Bloody David Attenborough,’ I text back.

* * * * * * * *

 

* Image two from the collection, “Emotional Trash, by  Khalil Chishtee 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘My biggest shock was when I wiped away her tears … and her eyebrows followed.’

I’m relieved to say that I married one of those women whose eyebrows are already on when she wakes up in the morning.

     You may think that this is an odd thing to consider but it seems that twenty-first century brows are not something to be taken for granted. I lived with a previous partner for five years before I found out that hers were not what they pretended to be. I’m all for shaking up a relationship once in a while but ‘imposter-brows’ was never what I had in mind.

     Having said that, I’ve also met women whose eyebrows were not where I thought they were. It’s a strange thing, fashion. Women argue that it’s a misogynist society that forces females to strip themselves of their natural brows and then to paint them back on again – often in a different place – but I wonder whether this is an over-simplistic view.

     ‘You would do,’ says my wife, ‘you’re a man.’

     I’m offended. I have never in my life sided with the idea of macho, and the role of the white van driver is not something I’ll be applying for soon. In fact, my teen years were probably single-handedly responsible for keeping Boots’ Number 7 range in business. Mine was a music-related fashion, but there was undoubtedly more than a little of the anti-macho lurking in there somewhere – a two fingered solute dressed in ice-pink gloss.

     ‘I’m not suggesting that we don’t live in a society where gender politics creates unreasonable expectations and pressures,’ I offer, ‘but I’ve never heard a guy say, ‘Check out the eyebrows on her’… at least not until recently.’

       Nat decides that I’m currently not worth talking to and leaves the room.

* * * * * * * *

That afternoon, I’m sitting in my optician’s waiting room, wondering whether the recent deterioration in my eyesight is due to bad diet, late nights, or over-use of my mobile phone. The last thing I’m prepared to accept is that it might have something to do with age. (I’m going to ask my optometrist whether computerised implants is a thing yet, and whether I can afford them.)

     I’m skimming through the magazine selection stacked on the small table in the corner of the room. It’s almost all women’s reads. I’m tempted by a title that I’ve not heard of before – The Vagenda, but someone has stolen the inner pages, leaving only the outer cover behind. (I consider the metaphorical significance of this for a few seconds before confusing myself and letting the issue go.) I’m guessing that this is a feminist publication of some sort? Something for another time, perhaps. I settle instead for a safer title, covering lifestyle and fashion.

     A few pages in is a photo of the model, Cara Delevingne, sporting perfectly sexy, full eyebrows above ice blue eyes. I take a pic of her on my phone and send it to Nat with the words, ‘See, fake eyebrows not required!’

     ‘Stop perving at models in the eye shop,’ is all I get back.

     I put my phone away, but then take it back out again: ‘I used to keep fluffy caterpillars as pets when I was a kid,’ I write. ‘I collected them from the garden and kept them in jam jars filled with grass and twigs. Sometimes, I’d smuggle them into the house at night but other times my mum would catch me and make me take them back outside.’

     It takes a moment for Nat to reply: ‘Why are you telling me this?

     ‘I was thinking about eyebrows,’ I write.

     ‘!’ writes Nat.

     I persevere: ‘One time, when my mum made me take the jar back outside, it rained and the thing filled with water due to the air holes I’d made in the lid. By the time I got to check on my caterpillars, they were floaty.’

     ‘Sad,’ Nat replies.

     ‘I know. Poor things.’

     ‘I was referring to you,’ she texts.

     Soon, I’m called into the optometrist’s room. I ask about bionic eyes but I’m told they don’t do them yet.

     On my way out, I pass a young girl and her mum in the waiting room. The girl is around three years old and is drawing a big scribbly face on a large sheet of paper, using a variety of fat crayons that she is holding in her fists. I smile at her as she looks up at me. Her mum is sat beside her. I look from what the child has drawn on her paper to what her mum has drawn on her own face. ‘She has your talent,’ I say, as I pass them both.

     ‘Thank you,’ says the mum, smiling.

     ‘It’s not a compliment,’ I say to myself, in my head.

     That night, I dream of Nat taking her eyebrows off at bedtime and placing them into a glass of water beside her. I wake in a sweat and reach over in the darkness.

     ‘What are you doing?’ she says.

     I find myself touching her face, feeling for her brows. ‘Just checking,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘If love is blind, how come lingerie is so popular?’

It’s Valentine’s Day AND my wedding anniversary this week. This means I have to prove my love for my wife twice. And both in the space of a few days. This isn’t going to be easy.

     ‘Don’t worry about buying gifts,’ she tells me, ‘we’re off to Spain in a few days, we can celebrate together then.’ She doesn’t, of course, mean a word of this. She once told me that she wasn’t into birthdays. That didn’t end well for me.

     I’m sat at work, scouring the internet for gift ideas. ‘If love is blind,’ I think to myself, as I roam aimlessly from website to website, ‘how come lingerie is so popular?’ Valentine’s Day really does bring out the cliché in people. I’m trying to come up with something that is simultaneously original yet not so costly that it gets me punched out by my bank manager. 

     Choosing a card is the easy bit, though I’m stuck between one that says, ‘You’re my favourite pain in the ass’ and another that puts things far more simply: ‘You’ll do’. Then I remember that I’m going to need two cards, so I buy them both.

* * * * * * * *

Nine years ago, we took our honeymoon in a small town on the southern Spanish coast. Every year since, we’ve returned there to celebrate our anniversary. So far, we’ve had ‘Anniversary Part 2’, ‘Anniversary 3D’, ‘Anniversary: The Revenge’, ‘Anniversary: And This Time It’s Personal,’ and a number of others in between. This year, we even returned in December and had ‘Anniversary: The Christmas Special’, with a guest appearance by a waiter who looked very much like Vladimir Putin but probably wasn’t.

     We tell friends that our yearly trips are designed as twelve-monthly marriage summits – a little like the annual Davos’ World Economic Forum, but with fewer elites and only one item on the agenda: a full audit of our marriage to date. We tell people that, at the end of each series of meetings, we sign off on an agreement regarding whether or not we should pursue our relationship further or merely call it a day and move on. It’s surprising how many people take us at our word:

                                                  ‘How was the trip? … You guys still OK?’

                                                   ‘Yeah, following a completed appraisal, we have decided to give it another
                                                   year and re-evaluate from that point onwards.’

                                                   ‘Oh, … OK. Well, I’m glad you’re both good for now.’

     In reality, we’ve usually just chilled on the beach and shared some nice food and drink at local restaurants, all shoe-horned between sunshine strolls and siestas. In the words of Tanita Tikaram, it has become a ‘good tradition’.

* * * * * * * *

I’m running out of days. I’ve not got much time left in which to choose the correct gifts. Should they be things that she wants or things that she needs? Would she prefer a physical object or an experience? Or both? And what is the accepted ‘spend-to-love’ ratio? These things aren’t taught in schools. Teachers were happy to relate to me how frogs have sex, but few were prepared to impart any real world wisdom. This is what our taxes are wasted on.

     I receive a text from Nat later in the day, telling me that she will have to work late on our anniversary, as she has to present at some kind of safety audit meeting. This lowers my options even further. I scratch off ‘Go out for meal’ from my list of maybes.

* * * * * * * *

On the morning of our anniversary, Nat wakes me up by sitting on me, which results in ‘Umph!’ being the first word I get to utter on our special day.

      ‘Ha-ppyyyyy Anniversaryyyy’, she sings, tapping me repeatedly on the forehead with the card she is holding. She is clearly more of a morning person than me. And possibly more of a sadist.

     ‘Happy Anniversary,’ I croak back at her, without feeling it necessary to open my eyes.

     ‘Nine years!’ she sings at me. ‘Nine years! You’ve put up with me for Nine. Whole. Years.

     ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I have.’ I try to turn over.

     ‘Open your card,’ she tells me, tapping it on my forehead a few more times before pushing it into my hand and closing my fingers around it.

     I open the card and am obliged to read it, which requires having to open my eyes. It hurts but I do as I’m told. ‘Thank you,’ I say, and reach out to touch her face.

     ‘And your present,’ she says, ‘Open your present.’ She slips a small package into my hand.

     With my other hand, I reach into the bedside draw and pull out my card and gift for her. ‘Happy Anniversary back at ya,’ I say.

     I slowly sit up and we both open our gifts together.

     Turns out that my spend-to-love ratio is spot on. How do I know this? Because we’ve both bought each other exactly the same thing: perfume by Issy Miyake. We both like this stuff.

     ‘Thank you,’ she says, hugging me.’

     ‘And thank you,’ I say, hugging her back.

     We formally shake hands before jumping into action and racing each other to the shower. She wins, so I return to bed with a coffee. 

     ‘Pressure off,’ I say to myself. ‘At least partly.’ I’m now fifty percent out of the water for another year. Only Valentine’s Day to go. Wish me luck.

* * * * * * * *

 

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