Poor Elsie! She had the worst cough in the world. It went: cough, cough, cough, cough, cough. Then it stopped for just long enough for her to breathe in: gasp! And then it started again: cough, cough, cough, cough, cough. Nothing seemed to help. Her Mum gave her some medicine. What happened? Cough, cough, cough, cough, cough. Her Mum smeared some greasy stuff on her chest. What happened? Cough, cough, cough, cough, cough. Her Mum gave her a cold drink, a hot drink, a sweet drink, a sour drink. What happened? Well, you know what happened.
Sometimes she cried about it. This meant that she was crying and coughing at the same time.
Mum spoke to the Doctor on the phone and the Doctor said that Mum was doing all the right things. There really wasn't anything else that could be done. Elsie would just have to wait for the cough to go.
There were times when the cough stopped. For a bit, anyway.
Elsie asked Mum, 'If the Doctor says that the cough will go, where will it go?'
'Well,' said Mum, 'it doesn't actually go anywhere, but we could pretend it does, couldn't we? Where would you like it to go?'
'I would like it to go to the pond in the park. It could jump in and disappear underwater.'
'Hmm,' said Mum, thinking about it, 'and I suppose as it went into the water, it would make bubbles: bloop, bloop, bloop.'
But then she started coughing again.
And that was nothing to laugh about.
Soon it was bed-time and Mum plumped up the pillows. She said that it would help if Elsie didn't lie flat. She had some more medicine, had some more greasy stuff on her chest, had another drink.
'And shall I leave the window a little, tiny bit open, so that if the cough wants to get out, it can get out through the little crack?' And she winked.
'Yes,' said Elsie, 'good idea. And it can fly away to the pond.'
And so Mum left the window open, just a little, tiny bit, kissed Elsie goodnight.
Elsie looked round the room, turned over, turned back. She coughed. She turned over.
Suddenly, there was a scurrying noise by the window. It sounded like a small animal trying to get in. But it wasn't making animal noises. It was making what sounded like human tutting noises, just like people make when they're a bit cross. Tut, tut, tut. Then it said, 'Really, this isn't very wide. How am I supposed to get in here?'
Elsie sat up on her elbow.
And there she was a teeny, tiny woman, struggling to get through the crack in the window. She had got most of herself through but she was now trying to pull a bag that was nearly as big herself behind her.
'Really. What do people think? I really wonder.' Tut, tut, tut.
Elsie looked at her. She was about the size of her hand and she was wearing an old coat, her hair looked as if it had been blown this way and that in the wind, and she had big rubber boots on.
'Who are you?' Elsie asked.
The teeny, tiny woman didn't answer Elsie's question.
Instead, she said, 'It's you is it? Are you the one with the cough?'
'Yes,' said Elsie. 'But who are you? What are you doing in my bedroom?'
This made the teeny, tiny lady even crosser.
'I was sent for, wasn't I? It was your mother, I guess. She said I had to come tonight and collect. She sounded worried. I said I was too busy. I've got a boy over in Wandsworth, a pair of twins in Hammersmith; I've given a job I was asked to do in Watford to my cousin. I'm not up to going there tonight.'
'But...what do you do?'
'Do? Do?' said the teeny, tiny woman. 'I'm the Cough Collector,' she said.
'Now, I haven't got time to hang about chatting. All I need is a couple of good throaty coughs from you.'
'Then what?' Elsie said. 'What are you going to do with them?'
'Questions, questions, questions. I collect them in this here bag. Stuff'em in. Then off I fly to the Cough Dump. Offload the two throaty coughs. Then what happens, is that they sit there calling out for their little brothers and sisters. And it draws all the rest of the coughs that you've got inside you, out of the window and off to the dump. Right, no more time for chat. Let's have a bit of coughing from you.'
Elsie was stunned. She had never heard of such a thing. And how kind of Mum to arrange this. For a moment, the surprise at what was happening had stopped her coughing. Oh no, she thought, here's my big chance to make the cough go and I haven't got a cough to give to the Cough Collector.
But that didn't last long. A few seconds later, Elsie was off again: cough, cough, cough, cough, cough. Gasp! Cough, cough, cough, cough, cough.
'Whoa, whoah,' shouted the teeny, tiny woman. 'I only need two.' And Elsie could see her stuffing something into her bag.
'Hmm,' she said, 'that one's a bit green. I don't like them. No worries. We'll have these off to the Dump in a flash. Can't stop. If you can't get back to sleep, young lady, turn yourself inside out. Bye!'
And Elsie watched the Cough Collector climb back out through the window, heaving the bag behind her.
I wonder what she meant about turning myself inside out, she thought. But then she did imagine herself turning inside out, like a jumper and next thing she knew her Mum was standing next to her and it was morning.
'How are you, Poppet?' said Mum.
'I think, I'm OK,' Elsie said, not quite sure.
'How's that cough? Did it go off to the pond?'
'No,' said Elsie. 'The Cough Collector came. She said that you had sent for her. She's taken a couple of throaty coughs off to the Cough Dump and they should pull the rest out too. So long as we leave the window open.'
'Oh that's very good,' she said. 'Elsie, that's wonderful.'
'No, Mum, you are. I think it's worked. I'm not coughing.'
'Yes, of course.' Mum said.
'And the Cough Collector's wonderful too,' said Elsie.
'Yes,' Mum said, 'she is.'
'How did you get to know her?' asked Elsie.
'Well,' said Mum, 'erm...I'm not really sure. I'll have to think about that. In the meantime, you get up and we'll have some breakfast. Toast?'
'Mmm, with jam on, please.' said Elsie, still wondering where Mum could have met the Cough Collector.