Christ­mas Present

Elsie Tan­ner feared Christ­mas just wouldn't be the same if they weren't on Corona­tion Street...

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - HELLO! -

De­cem­ber 1941

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?

✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿

‘Go­ing some­where?’

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.

✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿

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.

✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿

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

Con­tin­ued over­leaf

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.

✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿

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.

Elsie nod­ded.

‘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.

THE END

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

very much’

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