Elsie Tanner feared Christmas just wouldn't be the same if they weren't on Coronation Street...
Elsie Tanner clung to the cracked sink in the tiny kitchen at number eleven Coronation Street, waiting for the wave of nausea to pass. She prayed there would be no air raid sirens today. She was in no mood to run for shelter from the flying bombs to the basement of the Rovers Return pub or the Mission chapel.
She shivered and pulled together the edges of her shabby ‘make do and mend’ cardigan. She’d lit the fire to make a brew from her remaining ration of tea leaves but its heat hadn’t yet melted the ice that had built up on the inside of the windows. Elsie closed her eyes and rested her hand on the growing swell of her belly. She didn’t remember feeling this bad when she was pregnant with her first-born, Linda. For a moment, her grimace gave way to a smile at the thought of her little toddler fast asleep upstairs – she needed to be strong right now, for both of them. Not that she was sorry her husband Arnold had left to rejoin his ship. He was probably somewhere midAtlantic right now, fighting for his country, and based on his rotten behaviour, Elsie knew she was better off without him.
She sat down heavily at the table and picked up the letter she’d tossed there angrily last night. The word, ‘EVACUATION’ and the signature of Olwen Peters, the teacher at Bessie Street School, stood out. The rest was a blur, but she remembered the words inviting her to reconsider her stance. Then Olwen
Peters herself had shown up at her door to speak to her – was it only yesterday?
‘I know you’ve always spoken out against evacuation,’ Olwen said, ‘but it’s not safe in Coronation Street while there are still bombs around. Won’t you please go with Linda to stay with a family in the countryside where you’ll be out of harm’s way?’
When the first wave of children had been evacuated from the neighbourhood, Elsie had sworn she would never leave the street. ‘The both of us will see the war out right here, thank you very much,’ she’d said. But now Olwen was more insistent, urging them to go to Wales.
‘You could stay on my sister Bronwyn’s farm,’ Olwen said. ‘She’s happy to take a family I recommend.’
Elsie raked her fingers through her flame-red hair, clutching handfuls in anguish as the finality of the words struck her, but she knew it made sense.
‘Doing what’s best for
Linda must be your first consideration, don’t you agree?’ Olwen said.
‘Are you trying to say I don’t know what’s best for me own daughter?’ Elsie was angered by the implication.
‘Of course not, but it’s very beautiful there and peaceful and Linda will have her own playmate in my young niece.’ Olwen’s voice was measured and persuasive. ‘There’s a special train that’ll be leaving soon. We’re aiming to get everyone settled in good time for Christmas,’ she said. ‘And of course you can take all your presents with you so it’ll feel like home from home.’
Elsie, who’d never had anything at Christmas as a child, had vowed things would be different when she had her own children, but she’d never envisaged anything like this. Last year several of the families in
Coronation Street had pooled their meagre resources and although Linda was too young to appreciate it, they’d made the most of what they had and had all managed to have fun together. This year, if Olwen had her way they’d be among strangers with only Elsie to watch Linda open the magic Santa tin she’d been carefully filling with small presents. ‘You do-gooders always think you know what’s best,’ she told the woman, but
Elsie could sense her resolve slipping.
After Olwen left, Elsie went to the cupboard and took the biscuit tin from its special hiding place. She opened it, looking fondly at the sweet treats she’d been gathering, a few coupons-worth at a time, and the other little presents she’d been accumulating throughout the year. She thought of the hours she’d spent embroidering Linda’s initials onto a small cotton handkerchief, the evenings when she’d strained to thread beads together into a bracelet, and the little teddy she’d so carefully knitted. Each gift was now individually wrapped and she’d add one more if there was time. She’d make a dress from an old, washed-out blouse for Linda’s favourite stuffed doll RoseMarie. She looked at the letter again, a burning sensation behind her eyes. Had she really said yes to Olwen?
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Elsie was so engrossed sifting through the children’s clothing in the Sally Army charity shop she hadn’t noticed Ena Sharples, caretaker of the Mission of Glad Tidings, riffling through the ladies’ blouses section. Ena had a reputation in Coronation Street for minding other people’s business more than her own and she was the last person Elsie wanted to see.
‘Go and poke your snout in someone else’s misery,’ Elsie responded sharply, forgetting she was still clutching the battered cardboard suitcase she’d found and was going to purchase.
Ena wouldn’t be put off that easily. ‘That woman from Bessie Street School finally got to you has she?’ she asked.
Elsie drew breath. How did she know?
‘I’ve heard she’s been trying to sell the countryside like it’s hers to give away,’ Ena said as if reading her thoughts. ‘I swear she gets a cut for every one she gets onto that bloomin’ train and she’s got three for the price of one with you lot,’ she said, indicating Elsie’s bulging stomach.
‘I want us to be safe, that’s all. Nowt wrong wi’ that, is there?’ Elsie was defiant as she pulled out her purse to pay for all the items she’d sorted for Linda, some knitted cotton pantaloons and winceyette pyjamas that looked like new, a skirt and a woollen jumper with the least number of holes she could find. She’d have to go to the Red Cross shop for shoes. There might be snow in Wales and she couldn’t have Linda getting wet feet.
Elsie spent the next few days patching, darning and labelling their belongings, doing anything that stopped her thinking about their impending departure until it was finally time to pack everything into the suitcase and pay a quick visit to the Rovers to bid her neighbours goodbye.
‘Stay safe, Elsie lass.’ Her closest friend Ida Barlow clung to her. ‘And come back as soon as you can once this nonsense is over.’
‘Look after little’un.’ Even Ena Sharples managed a word and gave a curt nod in Elsie’s direction.
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On the morning they were leaving, grey clouds hung low in the sky but Elsie could hear in the distance the drone of an aeroplane reminding her why she was going. A misty drizzle filled the air and Elsie shivered in the damp chill, glad Linda was warmly bundled up in a neighbour’s hand-me-down coat and the bobble hat and scarf she’d re-knitted from an unravelled cardigan. She’d found some button-up boots but they didn’t stop Linda slipping on the glass-like frost covering the cobbles as they made their way to Bessie Street where a bus was waiting to take them to the station. Linda was excited about going on a train and kept running ahead refusing to hold her mother’s hand until they stopped at Foyles corner shop. There Elsie allowed her to choose a small ration of sweets to eat with the bread and dripping sandwiches she’d packed for their journey.
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Elsie was surprised how many people were already in the schoolyard, some of the older children with their names and addresses pinned to their coats, preparing to travel alone as their parents bid them a tearful farewell. Elsie had been trying to distract Linda with tales about the Welsh mountains and the promised snow. She gripped her hand tightly and for once was pleased Linda was sombrely sucking her first two fingers. Elsie recognised no one in the crowd apart from Dolly French from the munitions factory who she acknowledged with a brief smile; the atmosphere was too emotional for chit-chat. She looked up at the overcast sky; she could hear no aeroplane engines now. Had she been too hasty agreeing to leave?
She rubbed her hand over her stomach and looked around anxiously, hoping to catch sight of Olwen. The words ‘I’ve made a mistake?’ were bubbling on her reddened lips when Dolly spoke up. ‘I don’t know why I didn’t send him away before,’ she said.
‘The next time we’re all sheltering like sardines in the basement of the Rovers pub at least I shan’t have to worry about his safety.’ She playfully
Elsie drew breath. How did she know?
scuffed the tousled head of a boy of about seven. ‘It’s a great weight off my mind, I can tell you. Though I’ll miss him. Eh chuck?’ She reached out again but the boy ducked away.
Elsie watched Dolly’s eyes fill as she spoke and her stomach cramped at the mere thought of being separated from Linda. But before she could tell Dolly they were being evacuated together, Olwen appeared, calling the roll in a strident voice and urging people onto the bus.
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The train station was already a head-spinning mass of people and Elsie was struck by the acrid, bad-eggs smell that stung her eyes and caught at the back of her throat as the engines belched steam across the platforms. It filled the air, floating up to the rafters where it swirled around the already blackened iron girders.
To Elsie’s relief, Linda clung to her as they boarded the train and made their way down the narrow corridor. Most of the compartments were full so she was grateful to find one with an open door. Four of the seats had already been claimed by a mother, two young boys and a little girl cuddling a doll but there were two seats still empty and she pulled Linda inside before quickly sliding the door shut. The woman smiled. Elsie loosened her headscarf and was eyeing the overhead luggage rack, wondering whether the loosely plaited string would support the weight of their suitcase when Linda let out an ear-drumdefying shriek. Elsie saw her eyeing the other little girl’s doll tearfully.
‘Where’s my Rose-Marie,’ she cried.
‘That little stuffed dolly of yours? I don’t know.’ Elsie was puzzled. ‘I told you to look after her.’
At first Elsie felt exasperated with Linda; trust this to happen at the last minute. Linda never went anywhere without her beloved doll and as the child’s wailing turned to inconsolable sobs Elsie suddenly knew what she’d have to do.
As quickly as she could, Elsie retied her scarf, then picked up the case. ‘Come on chuck, there’s only one thing for it.’ Elsie grabbed Linda’s hand and almost pulling her along, rushed down the narrow corridor of the train. The guard, whistle in his mouth, was already slamming the carriage doors shut but she managed to haul Linda and the suitcase off the train before he reached theirs.
‘Hey! Where on earth are you going?’ a voice yelled through the open window and Elsie realised it was Olwen.
‘My daughter’s left her doll behind. She’ll never settle without it,’ Elsie called back.
There was a piercing whistle, and a shunting noise and the carriages juddered like a stack of dominoes as the train began to move. ‘We’ll have to get the next one.’
‘There is no next one,’ Olwen shouted.
‘Oh, isn’t there? That’s a shame.’ With a grin and a wave, Elsie watched the train gather speed and chug out of the station until there was only the two of them left on the platform. She took a deep breath and laughed. ‘Come on, let’s go back and look for Rose-Marie,’ she said and this time she didn’t stop Linda skipping ahead. Elsie thought she heard someone calling her name as they approached the barrier and squinting through the hazy light saw a familiar face waving aloft what looked like a stuffed doll.
‘Rose-Marie!’ The little girl hurtled towards Ida Barlow, seized Rose-Marie from her hands and clutched the tatty doll tightly to her chest.
Ida laughed then embraced Elsie, her face troubled. ‘Mrs Foyle found the doll on the pavement outside number eleven. Linda must have dropped it as you left. But the train’s gone now – without you on it…?’ she said.
‘We couldn’t go without Rose-Marie. I decided Linda was trying to tell me summat.’ Elsie laughed.
To Elsie’s astonishment Ena Sharples came puffing up to the barrier behind Ida. ‘You’d forget your brains if they weren’t jammed between your ears, Elsie Tanner.’
‘And it were my Kenny as knew it were Linda’s doll,’ Ida said proudly, then she hesitated. ‘Will you be getting the next train then?’
Elsie shook her head and smiled. She had no intentions of saying goodbye to her friends again.
Ida gave her another hug. ‘I’m so pleased you’re staying. Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without you.’
Never one for tears, Elsie was surprised to find her eyes filling with them. Truth was, she’d never wanted to leave Weatherfield and it was Linda who’d given her a way back.
‘I didn’t actually go anywhere, did I?’
Elsie cuddled her daughter and then put her arms around Ida and even her old adversary, Ena, in a giant hug.
She knew for certain now this was where she belonged and if they all pulled together like this, Christmas on Coronation Street this year was going to be the best one ever.
Maggie Sullivan, 2018
Christmas on Coronation Street is published in paperback at £7.99 on 15 November
‘The both of us will see the war out right here, thank you