I ran my fingers over the scarred surface of the wooden school bench. I was back in this sleepy little town to say goodbye to the old bush schoolhouse which was about to be demolished; as I’d walked through the gate into the school grounds men had been taking down the old bell. As it fell it clanged one last time, the sound reverberated over the years, and my memories came flooding back. I could see myself sitting at this old desk, with Aggie beside me.
How many years ago, I asked myself.. Yes, eighty, eighty years tomorrow. How clearly remembered was that first day at school. Mother had dressed me with particular care that morning in a crisply starched blue-and-white gingham dress with matching bloomers. How those bloomers had prickled! In her enthusiasm Mother had starched them as well as the dress. Pinned to the bodice of the dress had been a clean white handkerchief which my older sister Ruth told me would be needed for “handkerchief drill”, an important ritual which took place directly after morning prayers. It was obvious from Ruth’s manner that failure to produce a clean handkerchief would have been a very serious error indeed and I could recall being terrified that mine would be lost on the way to school. I’d asked Mother to fasten it with two pins, just in case.
The possible loss of my handkerchief was not my only concern as we trudged along the dusty bush track on our way to the small schoolhouse almost two miles away — no school buses in those days. What if no one would play with me? What if I couldn’t find the classroom? What if the teacher was really cranky? What if I needed to go to the toilet and…? I began to dawdle and Ruth became impatient. “Hurry up,” she exclaimed. “we’ll catch it if we’re late!” I spent the rest of the journey worrying about exactly what it was that we’d "catch". However, we reached the school gate just as the bell was ringing, Ruth, shoved me into the "littlies' line" and bustled off importantly to join the "big people". Eventually we all marched into school to the beat of a kettle-drum played by a boy with fiery red hair, the teacher issued instructions in a very stern voice and I found myself sitting at one of the bench-desks with another "new" girl. How vividly I remembered that girl!
Never in my sheltered life had I encountered anyone like Aggie Burke. The first thing I noticed about my new companion was the aroma. A sour-ish, rather cheesy smell emanated from her; as the day grew warmer it became more pronounced, and when at “playtime” the children jumped to their feet and scurried outside the movement seemed to release a blend of scents from Aggie’ clothing. Later in life I was to recognise this smell as the sad scent of poverty.
Aggie had been very thin and always wore the same faded tartan frock, which had obviously been made for someone taller and plumper. Her bony feet had been thrust into a pair of boy’s broken-down shoes, so ill-fitting that they often fell off when Aggie tried to run in the playground. Her eyes were pale blue and protuberant, her mouth perpetually open and her response when spoken to had always been preceded by a nervous giggle. She fidgeted and wriggled incessantly, never had a handkerchief, either clean or dirty, and was constantly hungry. She was pathetic, and, for some reason, I grew fond of her. Aggie, in return, was loud in her praise of my “pretty clothes” and my long blonde hair, which, to my great embarrassment, she delighted in stroking.
I can recall wishing that Aggie wouldn’t fidget so much, largely because it often drew the unfavourable attention of the very stern Mr Taylor to our particular bench. Years later, when I was myself a teacher, I wondered how Aggie hadn’t fidgeted more, plagued as she had no doubt been by the torments of the desperately poor of the time. Unwashed and tangled hair harboured head-lice, bodies packed four to a bed bred fleas and inadequate diet nourished thread worms. A three-roomed shack with dirt floors and no running water, inhabited by two adults and seven children, had not encouraged cleanliness . When you consider her situation, it was a tribute to Aggie's resilience that she survived at all.
Aggie had left the school just before my ninth birthday. The family simply disappeared and adults whispered behind their hands about “eviction” and “child welfare”. The tumbledown shack was demolished soon after, just as the old schoolhouse was being demolished now. I wasn’t sure why, after so many years, I had travelled so far to say goodbye and I also found myself wondering why I’d been so fond of Aggie. Perhaps it was that all those years ago I’d sensed, with the simple instincts of a child, that someone needed to be fond of Aggie.
So it was that as I left the old schoolroom for the last time, I found myself thinking, once again, I wonder whatever happened to Aggie?