Dean Martin croons of a winter wonderland as Richard Ratcliffe sits alone in a cafe next to a Christmas tree, shoppers hooting with laughter behind him.

He smiles tiredly when I sit down, but insists he doesn’t mind the frivolity, it’s just he himself is inhabiting a parallel universe, a world on pause.

“I don’t resent the celebration for Christmas,” he says, patiently, his face very pale. “It just feels like another space, that isn’t the space I’m in. I’m not ready to celebrate yet. It’s not my time.”

It will only be his time when his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is released from the Iranian prison where she has been held since April 2016, after being arrested at Tehran airport returning from an innocent visit to her parents, on charges of conspiring to overthrow the regime.

And when she and their daughter, Gabriella, four, who was with her and who has been living with her grandparents in Tehran ever since, are finally back home with him in their north London flat.

Refused a visa to visit, his only relationship with Gabriella since then has been via skype, and with Nazanin by phone – and this will, devastatingly, be his third Christmas without them.

Yet he will buy them both presents, as he has done for the last two years, sending Gabriella’s to his in-laws, while faithfully keeping Nazanin’s, hopefully wrapped, for when she returns.

“There is a wintery furry hat that I bought the first year; last year a handbag – that is what she wanted,” he says.

“This year she is not ready to say what she wants, she just wants to come home. But I will buy her a present and wrap it.

“All the presents I buy Nazanin are for her life here, there is a future, positive side to it.

“They are wrapped up waiting for her. But I’m not sure if emotionally I can put the presents under the tree. It feels to me too sad.”

Three weeks ago, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Iran for the first time, to demand Nazanin, sentenced to five years in prison, be released.

There is little more supposed evidence for their charges against her, than her previous admin job in London with BBC Media Action, and her current one with the Thomas Reuters Foundation.

Some Iranian officials have confirmed she is a pawn in a political row with the British Government; she has been told told her imprisonment rests on a haggle over a £450million debt from a 1970s arms deal, owed by Britain.

Richard and Nazanin initially dared to hope it would get resolved in time for Christmas, especially as earlier this year Nazanin was finally granted three long overdue days furlough with her family.

But now that hope is disintegrating as Brexit and an imploding British government distract from their plight.

Tonight, Richard plans a carol service and vigil outside Downing Street to keep up the pressure.

And together, they can only cling to the memory of their last Christmas a family, pictured here, and hope to repeat it.

It was their first in their then new flat; the first Gabriella, then almost 18 months, started to grasp the magic.

“If Nazanin suddenly came home I have promised her we would do all the things we did the last year,” Richard says.

“The things she looks forward to doing is what we did for our last Christmas together.

“We would do the mad dash around on Christmas Eve, find a Christmas tree. Then, Gabriella was tiny in the pram. We went and bought the tree down the road, carried it up and decorated it together, felt that nice happy feeling.

“Sitting having a cup of tea in the living room with the family playing around – that is what in Nazanin’s mind’s eye Christmas is.”

But now more than ever, a warm tea in her own living room this Christmas has become too painful for Nazanin to even hope for.

That nice happy feeling is one neither she nor Richard recognises.

She is at one of the lowest ebbs he has ever known her since her imprisonment.

That is in part because this Christmas also includes her 40th birthday, on Boxing Day, which has come to symbolise the most painful of deadlines.

Nazanin is desperate for another baby and fears time is running out.

“She is very low and despairing, almost wanting to stop hoping because the hope is too much,” says Richard.

“For her the key point is turning 40 on Boxing Day, if we cross that point and she’s still in prison there will be a fundamental hurt and decision to do something.

That something she is threatening is a hunger strike.

She has done it before, two years ago while she was held in solitary confinement at the beginning of her prison term.

She continued her strike for a week until her mother’s terrified collapse, and Gabriella’s resulting anguish, stopped her.

But now Richard does not believe he can stop her – and doesn’t feel he has the right.

“I would hope she didn’t go to the bitter end,” he says, carefully.

“I have to talk her down,” he explains of their increasingly emotional phone calls.

“I feel it’s not my right to say ‘You can never do it’. There’s very little she has control over. It’s not for me to take away the only card she has to play.”

Nazanin’s desperation is also being heightened by fear for her health.

She has found lumps in her breasts, and is not being allowed a specialist check-up. Although she has found them before and they were diagnosed as benign, she fears the worst.

“If it doesn’t happen, if she does not come out for Christmas, we will have a fall out from Nazanin to react to,” says Richard, solemnly. “And then we will have to pick a fight.”

Fighting, campaigning, is what Richard has done tirelessly since going public with his wife’s imprisonment.

How he persists, how he continues to talk Nazanin back from an edge of despair, is unimaginable.

And all the time trying to forge a relationship with his daughter on an iPhone screen who now doesn’t speak English.

“Gabriella asked her mum about six months ago ‘Do you know Daddy? Have you ever met Daddy?’

“Of course for her I’m just a face on the phone,” he shrugs, pained.

“Nazanin was mortified, horrified.”

But he continues. What else can he do?

He will send Gabriella the red dress and shoes she has asked for this Christmas, and he will talk to his in-laws about making her a stocking – a stocking he would love to fill.

And he will talk to her on Christmas Day, and see the dress and shoes – and hope the prison allows Nazanin to call him, too.

There is still a small part of him that dares to hope for this year, but it is diminishing.

And he has firmly given Gabriella no hint of hope at all.

Yet she still clearly does, while not quite understanding what it all means in the surreal world which has become her reality.

“She asks her mum ‘Are we going to go back to London for Father Christmas?’” Richard smiles, not minding at all that he’s been usurped.

Please join the Free Nazanin campaign for Christmas carols Tuesday 18 from 5.30pm opposite Downing Street to stand in solidarity for her release, and the release of all British citizens currently in detention.

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