When your children are small and won’t eat their greens, it’s sometimes necessary to chop the veg up into tiny pieces and hide it in a pasta sauce.
Fast-forward two decades, and you have a similar problem if you want them to spend any length of time with you — you have to disguise it as something else.
Our daughters, Alice, 23, and Mabel, 18, are long past the age of wanting to holiday with their boring parents. There was no chance of getting them on a summer break, even before the global pandemic struck — so in January, I looked at the diary and bank balance, took a deep breath and said: ‘Let’s have a mini break together in February half-term. I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland.’
It wasn’t just about going to Iceland, of course. It was my sneaky way of having what I knew might be our last family holiday.
Louise Doughty (pictured) who organised a family mini-break to Iceland earlier this year, said she thought the trip would be their last family holiday abroad
Mabel was in her A-level year and had summer plans in Ibiza, probably involving some activities no mother would get to hear about. Alice was due to move to Denmark this autumn to study. Our family is about to fracture for good, I recall thinking — how can I persuade them all to come on a break?
The trick was to choose a country that was too expensive for them to visit any other way. Throw in the Northern Lights and, ‘Yeah, OK’, ends up being the nonchalant reply.
How poignant that holiday seems now. At the time their father Jerome and I thought it might be our last trip together, but that it would be just the start of an exciting year for the girls — a year in which, once we were through Mabel’s exams, I’d have more freedom than I’d had in two decades. I had begun my tenth novel and researching it was going to involve plenty of travel. I couldn’t wait.
As we headed off for Luton Airport, I thought about how nice it was, how rare, to spend time together, just the four of us: not realising that within weeks A-levels would have melted away like snow, all our plans would be cancelled, and we would be spending more time together than any of us could have dreamed.
Family life has been put through the blender for the past two months. I used to be the only person in the house for hours every day. Now Jerome, a radio producer, works in the kitchen, and Alice works on the landing. Mabel sleeps until lunch, then works out in our bedroom and watches Netflix.
We’ve negotiated the use of space in the house reasonably well, and it’s easier than having to home-school small fry, but I’ve almost forgotten what the world is like beyond our walls.
Louise recalls the Northern Lights showing up on their first night in Iceland. Pictured: Louise with her husband Jerome and their daughters Mabel and Alice in Iceland
The Iceland trip now has an almost unearthly glow about it. Looking at photos I think, ‘Were we ever really there?’
The country has that quality anyway, even when it isn’t viewed through the mist of a travel ban. Our vista, after we had picked up the hire car and left the capital Reykjavík, was of the lava fields that lie to the south — a lunar landscape of crags and gulleys dusted with snow.
Our first surprise was how empty it was. Most of Iceland’s 364,000-strong population lives in the capital, and you can drive for miles without passing a car.
The name of our travel company feels achingly ironic: Discover The World. How we would all love to do that now.
The Northern Lights showed up on our first night. Our hotel operated an alarm system where they called your room so you could rush out in your nightie — pausing only to pull on one of the snowsuits kept in the foyer.
The girls, normally hard to shift from bed, flew outside, and we stood in the car park, watching the pink and mauve swirl, tinged with the kind of green a Parisian might hallucinate after too much absinthe.
Louise admits she tried not do the mental calculation of how much the trip was costing, as she and Jerome would gasped at the scenery. Pictured: The family in Iceland
The hotel excursions were eye-wateringly expensive — a trip up to a volcano crater in a Jeep was £200pp. Instead, we opted for a guided glacier walk.
Later, on Diamond Beach, I stood on black volcanic sands, surrounded by ice rocks. Never have I felt so puny in the face of nature — the things I can’t control. Little did I realise, it was a taste of things to come.
There is only so much natural wonder any teenager can take, mind you. On the third day, Mabel uttered the immortal line: ‘Not another waterfall . . .’.
I gritted my teeth and tried not to do the mental calculation of how much it was all costing. Many journeys took hours, and while Jerome and I would gasp at the scenery, the girls slipped on their earphones. They disliked sharing a room, too.
There is a strange regression that takes place when two adults and their adult children are in close proximity — a reversion to the roles of carers and kids. ‘Put your hats on!’ I cried. ‘It’s cold. Don’t forget your gloves!’ Alice has visited a UN peacekeeping zone in Colombia and saw the disarmament of FARC guerrillas. Mabel has danced in front of thousands at Sadler’s Wells. My girls have nerves of steel, and I was still telling them off.
Louise (pictured) said although they have a delicate balance of being together at home at the moment, she wonders when they'll get the chance to travel again
That instinct, too, turned out to be prescient. A few weeks later, I found myself biting my lip to avoid saying ‘Wash your hands’ all the time. I again warned them to keep away from strangers. The pandemic has seen our adult children be infantilised more than they could ever have imagined during moments of ire on family trips.
It’s now been confirmed that the coronavirus reached Iceland in February — if not when we were there, then within days of our departure. It was probably brought in by tourists like us.
The one worry we had during our visit was about the crowds at the most popular sites. I think about that a lot now: what those places are like with no visitors. The black sands of Diamond Beach will be smooth yet haunted by the ghostly imprint of a thousand tourists who visited before the virus struck.
Our lives are full of practicalities now, the delicate balance of all four of us being together at home. But although our children will flee as soon as they can, I still dream of us being together somewhere so beautiful. I wonder when we’ll get the chance again.
Louise is the author of nine novels including Apple Tree Yard and Platform Seven.