By Oliver McBride

Christmas Eve saw the snow starting to fall thick and heavy across the countryside. 

A little girl stood at the crossroads a mile from her house, waiting anxiously for a bus that would bring her the best present she would get that Christmas. Mary’s dad had been away since the middle of October and now she stood at the crossroads praying for the bus that will take him home to her and her family.

The snow was getting thicker and the evening growing darker. Her mother had told her not to go and that her dad and her older sister, Susan, would make it up the road himself. But Mary didn’t care. All she wanted was her father and how could anyone tell a seven-year old child anything else.

If Santa didn’t come tonight it didn’t matter as long as she was tucked up tight beside her father in front of the roaring fire. She didn’t care if there were no presents, and she didn’t care if there was no roast goose or anything for dinner.

The family had a letter home every week from Greenock, outside Glasgow, her mother told her, every week as regular as clockwork and she loved hearing her mother, or Susan, read it over and over again, but it wasn’t the same as having her dad there.

It seemed like a lifetime since she heard his voice, or smelt his pipe or heard him coming through the front door whistling that tune.

‘The Galway Shawl’ she liked that tune. She started humming it to herself. Her feet were like two blocks of ice and they stung standing on the cold ground. Her hands and legs were turning blue and her face nipped under the hat and scarf. 
Still! No word of the bus.  

Then in the distance she could see two pale yellow lights approaching. She could hear the hum and bustle of the old diesel engine. It was coming slowing along the white shrouded road.

Carefully and patiently it made its way until she could start making out the white and red of the Lough Swilly colours. It blew out thick blackish grey smoke into the dying light of the oncoming night.

Slowly, it pulled up about two yards from where Mary was standing. Susan stepped off the bus but nobody else was there.  

Mary looked into Susan’s eyes that were red rimmed.

“Where’s Daddy?” she asked Susan holding back the tears she could feel welling up.
“The bus driver waited as long as he could but…” Susan trailed off. “But there was no word of Dad or his bus coming into the station in Letterkenny.”

“But there’s no other bus tonight!” cried Mary. She hurt so much she thought she was going to die.

“No there isn’t,” Susan dropped her voice and threw her arms around her little sister. “Come on, we better tell Mother.”

With legs like lead, Mary and her sister trudged the mile home through the thickening snow. When they got to the house, Susan told their mum what happened.

She sat on the edge of her seat. Her head dropped to her breast but Mary didn’t see her cry. After a little while she got up and said, “Well, this bird isn’t going to cook itself.”

Later that evening Mary and Susan were packed off to bed but sleep didn’t come easy. They lay awake all night but at some point they must off drifted off into slumber.
The door creaked open softly. Something in the room moved. Someone came and sat on the end of her bed.

Mary found herself barely awake but she could feel the cold coming from whoever it was.
“Hello girls! Sorry I’m late getting home. The bus got a bit delayed with the snow. It’s so good to see my angels again,” and their dad give them the biggest hug they ever got.
They could feel him cold to the bone through his clothes.
When the light from the hall hit his face, they could see his face was burnt blue and red from being out in the snow.

“Daddy, how did you get here!” Mary cried into his broad shoulder.
“Oh, I had to walk my girls. Me and a few other men. We had no choice but it is worth it just to be home,” he said.

Mary thought she could feel her father crying. He never cried. He was always so happy.
“Why are you crying Daddy?” Mary asked him as she lifted her head from his shoulder and looked into his eyes. “Are you sad?”

“No Mary dear. Sometimes it’s just so good to be home. I’m not sad, just very, very happy. Now put your heads back down on the pillows and get to sleep. Santa will soon be coming with your presents.”

Their father stroked both their heads as they lay back down.
Mary didn’t care now what Santa brought her.

She already had the best Christmas present ever.