Dirty Aggie was the only name I ever knew her by, although her real name wasn’t Aggie or even something close like Agnes. It seemed to fit. The origin has been speculated upon but never really tied down, so I won’t add to the debate other than to say, whatever about the Aggie origin, the dirty part had some sense of logic.
I came across her as a nipper and she frightened the living bejaybus out of me. You would have been able to see her shop from our house, were the view not blocked by the corner of the pub across the road from us. As the crow flew it was about two hundred yards away, but you had to cross two roads to get to her shop as our house was very close to a cross roads, whose traffic flow was controlled by a sprawling roundabout.
Even as a little waifling, I was allowed to cross both roads without an adult. I had to cross roads to get to school by myself anyway, so the road crossing rules were well drilled into me and back then, there was very little traffic compared to today.
Most people in our neighbourhood only aspired to own a car, so most of the traffic was passing through and much of it was large and hard to miss as in buses and trucks. Trucks were always a source of amusement because as they slowed for the roundabout, the local boys would try and scut on the back of them. It was not uncommon to see lorry drivers slam on the brakes and jump out to chase them off. They ran the gauntlet, especially if they weren’t closed trailers. Not all the boys were just scutting for fun. Some had more criminal intentions. I didn’t scut. My Ma would have reddened my arse if she caught me and there were far too many aunties, not to mention random auld-wans floating about the place who knew I was May’s son, to take the chance.
Now to be fair, Dirty Aggie’s was very dodgable, but there were times when you had no real choice. She opened long hours and sold a range of goods, tinned food, milk, bread, sliced meats, cake, shoe polish, jam, flour, sweeping brushes…you get the idea. She opened odd hours and sold single cigarettes and single matches, to kids as young as could make it to her shop on their own steam. Back when shops weren’t 24 hour affairs and we were lacking supermarkets, sometimes Dirty Aggie’s was the only place left to go. It’s funny to recall buying a packet of fags for my da without her even blinking an eye when I was so small I could barely see over the counter.
Of course she wasn’t known as Dirty Aggie for nothing. Hygiene was…well let’s just say you left your highfalutin ideas about cleanliness and hygiene at the door. We didn’t have health and safety back then…No siree! At a time when at the very least shops had electric fly zappers with nice flashy blue lights in the summer, Aggie had strings of sticky, fly covered fly paper dangling over the fresh meat.
We could return bottles in them days and get a few pennies on the refund. Aggie never gave kids the money. Instead she would give you cake. She used to have a slab of sponge cake covered in pink icing, which she would cut into small squares, and that was the best you could hope for. In fairness, we didn’t get much by the way of sugar in those days as money was tight, so fly covered or not -they were quite the lure. I loved cake.
The trouble of course was that the flies liked them too and on a hot summer’s day, they looked more like current cakes, until she swatted them away before slicing through the slab and tossing it on the counter for you. Mmmmmmm…fly cake.
I always entered her shop with a sense of foreboding. She’d rip you off on your change if she could and the place always had a bad smell. Often it was from the older boys throwing stink bombs in through the door and shouting some abuse as they ran away.
What I didn’t know of course, was that she was more than just a cranky old bat who ran a smelly old shop. She was more than the sum of the parts we imagined. Her real name was Louise Moran and her life was dotted with tragedy. She had been married, but lost her husband young and later her son tragically committed suicide, by hanging himself out the back of her house in the shed while she was unaware in the house. She eventually gave up the shop after a few years and moved to a nearby suburb where she fell under the spell of Alzheimer’s. She ultimately died in her early eighties and was buried in her home town land with the wonderful name of Yellowbogcommon. These facts I learned much later in life while researching for my book Little Big Boy.
Of course all we ever knew about her was that she ran a smelly shop and had the enduring nick name of dirty Aggie. She seemed to be a private woman, for even our parents knew little about her. The memories of my childhood are not always happy ones, but I generally look back with a fondness that seeks out the best of those times. In remembering Dirty Aggie I smiled, for she and her shop, the sights, sounds and smells that accompany those memories, are all part of a rich tableau that ultimately shaped my life. Yet I think it’s important to not forget that behind the walls of people we encounter, even those that maybe only barely touch our lives, there are stories filled with joy, sadness and in Aggie’s case, terrible tragedy that we often never even consider.
I can’t reprimand my tinier self for not seeing past her gruff exterior. My mother taught me well enough not to be mean, hurtful, or indeed to join in when others taunted her. I was an observer but my little mind only saw what it needed to see. I saw Dirty Aggie, a woman who challenged me to count my change for fear of it being short. I saw Dirty Aggie, the woman who served me before other boys for I was polite, waited my turn and said please and thank you.
Sadly beyond her soiled apron, the smell of old meat and sugary iced cakes covered in flies, I never gave her much of a second thought at the time. That being said, she still remains large in my memory as indeed she surely does for a generation of children who knew her only as Dirty Aggie, made up songs about her to sing before tossing stink bombs in through her door, and bought single cigarettes and matches from her the very next day. Whatever else can be said about her sad life, she left her mark on this world, for good or for otherwise, but for me at least, a mark dipped in nostalgia, reeking of cold ham, shoe polish and stink bombs. Long may her memory endure…
Haven’t read a Max Power book yet? I think it’s time to pick one up.
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Darkly Wood II The woman who never wore shoes, Larry Flynn, Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
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