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I’m going on holiday. I’m going on my own. It’s not as good as going with family or friends but it’s better than having no holiday at all! I wasn’t well enough to go with everyone else in the summer so now I am stealing away for a week in the late autumn sun.

The most difficult decision is not what clothes to take but which camera. I love my photography, I love that feeling of seeing reality in front of me in a new and deeper way. Taking photos often feels a lot like writing poems: trying to capture the essence of the subject succinctly and keep everything else that is irrelevant out of the frame or out of focus. I find it impossible to take good photos with other people around – it’s too distracting – so if I’m going to have to holiday on my own I’d better take the opportunity to dig out the camera.

So Portugal here we come!

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As soon as it became British law that you could ask for flexible working, I was beating on my boss’ door asking to change my hours. My children were in primary school, and though I had more or less managed to cobble together solutions until then, finding childcare was a huge ongoing problem, especially during the holidays. We had been forced to move out of the city by the cost of housing, and though we loved (and still love) living in the countryside, rural areas provide far fewer options when it comes to childcare.

I knew it was a luxury to be able to negotiate my hours down, but it has never been really satisfactory for me: it has always been a pragmatic solution, not one I liked. Over the years I tried out all sorts of combinations, but in the end I settled down with a shorter working day, and term-time working. It was never a good fit for my workload, but gradually I became used to this rhythm of six or seven intensive weeks of work, followed by a week or two off.

It was only meant to be a short term fix for the few years until the children were old enough to be left at home on their own. How I would have laughed if someone had said I would still be working short hours when my eldest was eighteen! But then Julie got sick, I ended up clinging on to my job by my fingernails, and for a long time I was struggling to do the reduced hours I had, let alone increase them.

But suddenly things have changed. “Why are you taking the Easter holidays off work?” asks Duncan. “So I can look after you guys as usual.” I say, surprised. He pulls an incredulous face. “But we don’t need looking after.” And suddenly I realise it is almost true. Finally, I can say, after eighteen long years, that they are both just about able to cope alone. I’m sure I can be useful – making sure they eat properly and take a break from revising for their exams – but my presence is no longer essential.

Julie has just come back from spending a weekend on her own: an amazing feat (for her). I have written a bit more about that and how it feels over on my JuliesMum blog. She does still need me, but I no longer have to look forward in dread to exhausting days protecting her from herself, and trying to occupy her. She is – I hardly dare say it aloud – slowly getting better. Duncan, too, is gradually throwing off his depression, bouncing back, spikily shrugging off his mum’s attempts to cosset him.

Hallelujah!

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The summer is drawing to a close. The last few days of the long holidays are slipping away. There are last minute panics over school shoes, books and satchels.

Julie is preparing for sixth form: she is already getting up very early in the morning to make sure she can cope when school actually starts at the end of the week. There is no more uniform for her, which she finds exciting but also unnerving. It is the social world of the sixth form that worries her most: navigating the mysterious codes, signals and taboos of ordinary teenage life. The study itself worries her much less now that she has managed to finish one set of public exams. She will have extra support, but the chances are there may still be a few of the usual alarms and excursions (mostly to A&E) while she settles in.

Sometimes a friend or colleague with a daughter of roughly the same age as Julie lets slip some achievement: completing their grade 8 on an instrument, competing at national level in their sport, winning a scholarship to a top university. I seem to have friends and colleagues with some incredibly high-achieving daughters! This did hurt at one time – Julie had also been successful in everything she touched, until she became ill in her mid teens and all these things dropped by the wayside. I did once feel the loss of my golden girl. But I can honestly say that it doesn’t matter at all now: we have been through so much, and I am just glad to have her alive and out of hospital. I love to hear of the achievements of the children of my friends, and I don’t grudge them their successes. Julie has had her own (private) triumphs over her illness.

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When do family holidays stop? While the children were both young we loved planning holidays every summer, always looking for something new, something a little bit different from our normal life, something we could all remember together. But eventually they do grow up, and for a while, they may hate those holidays with you. What can you do then – do you drag them with you, leave them behind, send them away, or just abandon holidays altogether for a little while?

In Duncan’s view, our family holiday at the start of the summer holidays was a washout. Boat trips, fish and chips on the pier, cream teas: none of this was good. It was the holiday his sister Julie needed, but not what he needed. Duncan is at his most anti-family at the moment, most determined to reject everything we do, plotting his escape from the cloying world of home. He is abrasive, angry, critical and argumentative. When I made up my usual photo book of the holiday, I devoted one whole page to moody shots of Duncan glowering at a slice of cheesecake, or slumped against a wall. He did not smile for two whole weeks.

Fortunately he had another holiday lined up for later on in the summer holidays: a week on Gibraltar at cadet camp. I picked him up from the airport at the end of the week, and found him in the middle of a gang of young men and women, most of them two or three years older than him, all of them tanned, loud and confident. Now this was the holiday he needed, full of activity, army discipline, noisy physical games, flirting, nicknames and practical jokes. He tried (and failed) to pick up Spanish girls, and only realised later that he had been trying to chat them up in German. He was punched by one of the apes. He got to go on board one of the visiting warships. He brought back some photos from this holiday, and in all of them he is grinning from ear to ear.

Is this then the end of the family holiday for us? We had several years without them because Julie was ill; it was an effort to organise one this year. Holidays that include Julie are inevitable for some years ahead, as she needs constant supervision. But what are we going to do with Duncan if he doesn’t want to come with us? Can we organise it so that we always go away when he has a camp to go to? I can see that being quite a challenge, trying to coordinate our departures and arrivals! But he is too young to leave at home. Next year he will be sixteen, and perhaps he will be ready to spend a few days at home on his own, but not whole weeks. He can hardly feed himself, he would be lonely, miserable. He likes to say (aggressively) that he can do without us, but he is still only a boy: he does need us really, even if he can’t see it.

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I took my daughter to London to see the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum yesterday. Fantastic exhibition! There is something about the Roman world that feels achingly familiar despite the 2000 years. From the table in the hall with the “posh” silver on display, to the remains of cosmetics on a woman’s dressing table, or the election slogans painted on the town walls, there is something vibrant, noisy and aspiring about these people. Yes, they had slaves, yes, they found brutal combat entertaining, yes, they had an odd taste in phallic ornaments, but we can still see ourselves in them, staring out of their portraits, reading their business contracts, sitting in their gardens.

And my favourite part of the exhibition was the Roman garden – I loved the idea of courtyard gardens, bringing light, water and the living world right into the centre of the house. The picture above is just part of wonderful light and airy garden murals painted all around one room that overlooked a courtyard, so that it must have seemed like an extension of the garden. It is like stepping into a birdspotter’s manual, with dozens of species of birds (and plants) painted with great skill and accuracy.

I may not be able to remodel my house around a courtyard, but I shall have to make sure my garden gives me as much pleasure. If you learn nothing else from Pompeii, you certainly learn that life is short and to be seized!

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Isn’t red cabbage wonderful? The colour and texture as you cut into it! I’m stewing it up slowly with some balsamic vinegar.

I have a few days of holiday from work, my son has gone on Easter camp, and I am supposed to be caring for my daughter. But at the moment my daughter is getting along quite well – I am not needed nearly as much as usual. Today she has even ventured out on her own, leaving me to play around in the kitchen and generally relax. It has been so long since I had time to myself I don’t know what to do!

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Where are we going to go for our family holiday this summer? It has been the subject of much heated debate in our house this week.

My daughter, Julie’s illness has meant that we have not had a family holiday – as in all four of us together – for the past three years. This is the first year that we can even begin to imagine it happening, but there are a lot of constraints. As I found out on our brief visit to Paris, travel with Julie needs to be taken very steadily and carefully. We managed Paris by train in winter, but a busy airport at the height of summer – and we are still locked into school holidays – is more stressful. If this is going to be a holiday we all enjoy, it looks like the best bet will be somewhere that we can reach easily by car, without going through any security barriers. A good old-fashioned British seaside holiday beckons.

The difficulty is Julie’s younger brother, Duncan, now turning fifteen. His last experience of a family summer holiday was an age ago, when he was just a child – and he is now a teenager. For the last couple of years, he has been treated to holidays alone with one parent – first his Dad, then me – travelling abroad, free from his sister, seeing the world. For him, any sort of family holiday is a retrograde step, let alone one practically on the doorstep, in dismal Britain. Quite understandably, he would rather not go on holiday at all, and is petitioning to be left behind. He won’t be – he is just too young.

What can we do? My husband and I desperately want to have a holiday anywhere where we can be together, Julie has to be with us but cannot travel far, my son wants to be anywhere else than with us! It looks like there is no compromise that can be reached. The likelihood is that we will go ahead and book ourselves a seaside retreat, and have to endure sharing it with a sullen and uncooperative teenage boy.

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