Her daughter’s queries were easy to answer. The ones in her own heart weren’t.
Boy, I’m so hot I’ll burst into flames if one more parcel-laden shopper bumps into me!
I grab Maria’s hands and battle through a heavy glass door into the twinkling depths of a big store. It’s no less crowded in here but at least it had the blissful advantage of air-conditioning.
Meet Maria, my daughter.  Pretty as a picture in her pink dress and cute rabbit backpack, wide gray eyes taking everything in. She’s bright and curious – my, is she curious! She’s a nonstop chatterbox who asks the world’s least answerable questions. And, as far as she’s concerned, her mum has the answer to them all. Or ought to.
Christmas is weird this year and I can’t concentrate on it. All the time I’m putting on a brave face finding a Christmas outfit for Maria. I’m stewing over the terrible argument I had with my husband Tom – when we both lost our tempers and probably our sense of proportion.
Next thing I knew, he was leaving with his one suitcase, and it was sinking in that he might not even be around for Christmas.
Of course, there is the rest of the family, and Maria. I intend to make this a magical time for her with some exciting presents and many treats. Four-year-olds deserve magic.
She breaks into my thoughts, “Why does everybody go shopping all at once?”
I resist saying, “Just to aggravate me.” Answering a Maria question flippantly is bound to lead to wild circles of “why?” and “but you said …” So I offer a sensible explanation: “They’re making sure they’ve got everything they need for Christmas.”
Inquiring eyes gaze up at me. “When isn’t Christmas?”
Here we go. Groan. “All the rest of the year! Shall we …”
Maria’s not to be put off. “And is it Christmas today?”
“No, but it’s nearly Christmas.”
“Then today’s not Christmas?”
“Not quite.” Then at top speed, determined to finish my secret shopping, I suggest, “Shall we have a cake?”
Maria shelves her interrogation to join the crush in the coffee shop and settles down to a large iced doughnut, peeping at me through the hole in the centre. We sip our drinks while I wonder if Tom’s OK. Suddenly Maria asks, “Can reindeers hop?”
“Shouldn’t think so, they wouldn’t balance.” I pass her the book we bought earlier, hoping for a bit of peace. It’s not that I can’t be bothered – kids learn by asking – but occasionally I need a breather!
Why is the sky blue? Why don’t fish have feet? Why isn’t Dad here?
And as I think it, she brings the subject up. “Did Dad have to go?”
Tricky. How do you explain to a four-year-old that grown-ups’ options are not always clear-cut? Difficult choices must be made between love and doing the right thing. But believing in giving a fair answer when possible, I say, “He felt he had to.”
“He’s gone away to do his job, hasn’t he? Dad’s got a very important job.”
“It’s partly to do with his job, Maria, yes.”
Under the table, Maria swings her feet in her cute blue sneakers “Will Dad be back for Christmas?’;
It’s as if an entire doughnut has lodged abruptly in my throat. I hear myself on that horrible evening he left. Why now? Do you have to go? What about Christmas? Why?
I remember Tom’s conflicting loyalties showing clearly on his face. “Don’t make this more difficult than it is! It’s something I just have to do.”
Maria asks, “Is Dad far away?”
“Quite far” I croak. blinking back tears.
“Is he lonely without us?”
“Shouldn’t think so. He’s not alone.”
She licks doughnut sugar from the corners of her mouth. “Well, it’s only nearly Christmas, so there’s still time for him to come home.”
Every day I’m filled with uncertainty. But, for Maria, I can’t let it show. I resort to fierce gaiety as we trim the tree. Maria helps me to bake. Once she’s in bed, I drag out gifts and set to work with golden ribbon and wrapping paper. I write labels and lose the scissors – like every other year – and try not to think about Tom.
But I’ve bought him a smoky blue shirt to match his eyes. In case. Oh, and cologne. And chocolate. Books by his favourite authors. I hope he comes. His voice when he finally rings – at night so I have to get out of bed to answer- is like a stranger’s. As if he’s thousands of miles away on an out-dated phone in an old hut, chunks of his words disappearing into hiss before they reach me.
“So I should … mas Eve, but it’s difficult to be sure of a time, so .. taxi … All right? … Maria too? ..I love …”
I’m left holding a phone where a tone has replaced his voice, wondering about the end of his sentence. I love … this time of year? Fries with tomato sauce? You?
At least I got enough to know he’ll be here for Christmas. Christmas Eve. And I haven’t told Maria Tom will be home today because, “When, when, when?” would drive me totally demented.
In the middle of an endless afternoon, Maria suddenly runs to see what’s going on outside. And there’s Tom, paying the cab driver, his suitcase between his feet. He looks relaxed and healthy and I feel a little dig of irritation that he looks so well when I’ve been so anxious.
Maria catapults back from the window, “Dad’s here for Christmas!”
I grin through a glitter of thankful tears, “Isn’t it lovely?”
Maria races for the front door as it opens, ready for Tom to yank her into his arms.
“Are you back for Christmas? Are you back forever? Have you been far away?”
Tom laughs, shakily. “You haven’t changed, Miss Question Mark!” And he swoops her up in the air and I watch the love and joy dancing across their faces. We face each other warily.
“What did you tell her?” he asks.
“Just that you’d gone away to work.”
Maria romps in with a blithe inquiry. “Is the job finished, Dad?”
He drops a kiss on her head. “No, it’s too big for that. It’ll take a couple of years.”
My heart sinks to my boots.
Then he explains it in terms Maria will understand. “What happened was this. You know I work for a big company?” Maria nods. “Well, they decided to help people in a far away country who aren’t lucky enough to have homes.
“I wasn’t supposed to be involved. But one man who was organising water and drains got ill. So I said I’d go. If I hadn’t, the whole project would’ve been held up and those people would’ve been without homes for a lot longer.”
I fidget, remembering the shock of his phone call, explaining he’d volunteered, and was leaving in a matter of hours. How outraged I’d been when he came home to pack. Worse, he wouldn’t assure me it was only temporary. I demanded, “Surely the other bloke will take over when he’s better?”
Tom had lifted his eyes from his packing. “I feel I ought to see it out.”
After a message that he’d arrived safely, I’d heard no more.
Tom’s hand strokes Maria’s cheek and I notice how rough and work-worn it is. “I couldn’t phone.  There were no phones.”
“Weren’t there any postcards?”
Tom grins. “No, ‘fraid not. And there wasn’t even a postman to collect them. We were a long, long way from a town.”
“What progress did you make?” I’m interested now. My worries have been too much about Tom going off to a ruined country with potentially hostile elements and few modern conveniences – about being without him at Christmas. I didn’t think much about what he and his team were doing for the troubled people who had lost their homes in the turmoil of war.
Tom leans back, tired. “Very good P.” And he talks about the dust, the heat and the tearful cheers when a basic water supply was restored.
Maria, of course, has a question. “Are you going back to build those homes?”
Tom strokes her hair again. “No, the other man is going there in a couple of weeks. He hasn’t got a wife and family to consider.” His eyes meet mine. “I knew when I left that I’d never sign up for the two years. I wanted to help, but my family comes first.”
I swallow. “And we missed you.”
I’d been so afraid that he’d stay away, feeling so guilty for wanting to take him away from people who needed him!
I join Tom and Maria on the sofa, crying, “I’m sorry. I had no right to be cross when you were doing something so worthwhile.”
Strong arms are around me and warm lips are kissing any further apologies from my lips. “I should never have considered doing any more than filling in.”
We surface as Maria asks, “Will Santa know to bring Dad his presents here?”
I smother a smile at the thought of the shirt and chocolates, crowded at the bottom of the guest room wardrobe.
“I think he’ll guess and bring him a few!”

 By Sue Moorhouse. Reproduced for educational purposes.