Dirty Aggie was a legend of sorts. Back in the day she represented all that was unpleasant about adults and she was very much a creature of time and place. Rumour had it, she was from a rich family but nothing about her little corner shop or her appearance would support that theory. I was afraid of her.
She was a big woman with a permanent scowl, the sort of face you couldn’t live in without eventually turning sour from seeing your own reflection. I remember blues and pinks beneath a dirty haberdasher’s apron and I never once saw her feet, for she was a permanent fixture behind the counter. Aggie was fine agricultural sort of a woman… a terrifying, menacing creature that I was forced to confront for tins of beans at my mothers behest.
In a time when glass bottles were recycled for a few pennies, Aggie was the nearest source for returns. Some shops stopped the practice until eventually, the only place left to go to was Aggie’s shop. She was supposed to pay you for the returned empty bottles, but whenever a child came in with one, she would offer goods instead of cash. I say offer but this was not a choice.
The shop had three counters, one to the left and right of the door and one across the end of the shop facing you as you entered. Invariably 90% of all business was transacted to the right. Here were the Fig Rolls, the sweets, bottles of red lemonade, Tayto crisps, cakes cigarettes, matches, jars of bonbons and other assorted sweets, sherbets, liquorice, penny toffees, black-jacks, dib-dabs, macaroon bars, bread, crackers and a whole range of dried non-perishable foods, which were the mainstay of her business. Sometimes she would have to literally brush the dust off a tin of beans before dispensing it to a customer.
To the left were oddities that I never considered. Here were the grown up, non-food related merchandise, shoe polish and the like, of no interest to a child like me, obsessed with the merest sniff of something that contained sugar. The counter to my left held no joy for me and I can barely recall what lurked there. Straight down the end of the shop was a meat slicer where Dirty Aggie would happily, thinly slice from a joint of ham that may have sat for days, festering on the wooden counter. She could easily handle a bale of peat briquettes or a bag of coal and move directly to the ham slicing without gloves, or any notion of consideration for that thoroughly modern concept of hygiene. I seem to recall a rather large block of cheese, but then again that may be my memory playing tricks on me.
A wrap of greaseproof was the barrier to the many flies that seemed a permanent fixture These same buzzing pests, also had a particular preference for the tray of cake that Aggie always had on display, covered in pink icing, acting as compensation for our refund on the empty lemonade bottles. She always had to swish away wasps of flies, before slicing into the cake and handing it over to my disappointed hands. But hey, back then sugar was sugar, you took it any way you got it.
Bigger boys liked to run past and toss stink bombs into the shop with a roar of “Dirty Aggie” as they quickly scarpered, in case she might vault the counter and beat the livin’ bejesus out of them. Aggie always looked threatening enough to be capable of such a thing, but she never did.
Rough looking boys as young as six or seven, would come in and purchase a single cigarette and match but only in the absence of adults. It was a clandestine exchange and Aggie was happy to facilitate the deal, no doubt making far more on the loose cigarettes and match deal, than she ever did on a full packet of Major.
Thinking back she was more a creature than a person to me. She was vilified by her name, useful in her ability to facilitate late opening and her ability to produce the oddest of produce from beneath her filthy wooden counters.
Everyone referred to her as dirty Aggie, children and grown-ups alike. There were stories and rumours of her great physical strength and a good sense that she could indeed crush a little boy like me for looking at her the wrong way, or for speaking too softly. The fear I personally had for her, made her seem more monstrous.
I know she had a sister, an even older lady, thin from my recollection who never seemed to speak. It always felt as though she was a walking ghost, hovering in the background, never actually doing much, occasionally handing something to Aggie.
My grown-up self sometimes wonders about them. They were two relatively elderly ladies who had a life, a history, a past I sense, inhabited by sadness, crafted by loneliness and they lived a life beyond those counters, a life none of us dared think of or cared to bother considering.
They were not Dickensian times; no I’m afraid I’m not that old, but the world certainly felt a little crueller for people like Aggie and her sister. I was a kind boy and I remember smiling at her once. She smiled back quite unexpectedly. Perhaps no bunny-haired little boy had smiled at her for no reason before. She didn’t say anything but she turned, waved her hand at a determined wasp and cut me a slice of pink cake.
Aggie handed it to me and told me to go on, a gift from a monster that took me by surprise. It is a strikingly vivid memory for me, a moment of confusion, added to all the more the next day, when her grumpy face returned as though we had never exchanged that secret smile of kindness…..
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