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Author Ele Fountain

The author on returning to Britain, trying to write in a playroom – and daydreamin­g about Ethiopia


THREE YEARS AFTER MOVING to Ethiopia with a baby and a two-year-old, we are back in the UK. There are no terrified mask-wearing airport staff checking passengers for Ebola, I note, fondly rememberin­g our outbound trip, and most things are easier. There is no state of emergency, the internet works, I don’t have to worry about amoebas. Yet I feel slightly out of touch with home. If we’re walking after dark, the kids ask if they need to watch out for leopards. They whisper with concern that Granny has been drinking the tap water. Mine are the only children who shout, ‘Mummy, is that all cheese?’ in the supermarke­t.

But they seem to be better at adapting than me. I still expect friendly voices to push me to the front of any queue if I’m with my children. In restaurant­s, no waitress scoops up my youngest daughter and entertains her until we’ve finished eating. My social life no longer organises itself either. As an expat living in Addis Ababa, whether having a coffee, or sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, I was guaranteed to bump into someone I knew. At first this was amusing, then annoying, then I seemed to not mind it so much. I wonder if there might have been a fourth stage – when it becomes hard to leave the rarefied club atmosphere. But perhaps life isn’t going to be so different. Smallest Child is working her way through three years worth of UK viruses and everyone in our village seems to know when we cut back our hedge. We are, however, eating a lot more cheese.

WE’RE CURRENTLY RENOVATING our not-quite-falling-down house in Hampshire. The spirit level lies neglected in the ‘corner’. There are no straight edges. But it does have something I’ve been needing for a while. Before Ethiopia, I was an editor. Our move to that country, full of beauty but also deprivatio­n, coincided with one of the largest refugee crises in modern history. I’d spoken to many authors about their inspiratio­n, so it was with great suspicion that I realised I might have had my own. That’s when I began to understand the need to write.

For some reason, I thought setting up my desk in the corner of the playroom was logical. I could work and keep an eye on Smallest Child. Although yet to hone her fine motor skills, she had a curiously accurate throw. She could hit me on the back of the head with a piece of plastic food with surprising force. I did, though, manage to complete my new book. As of last week, I also have my own office.

WITH FEWER PLASTIC MISSILES to dodge, I find myself daydreamin­g, in my wonky office, as I look at all the boxes that still need unpacking, about how we don’t really need all this stuff. One of my most cherished memories from Ethiopia is a mountain trek we did with the kids. I packed warm clothes, sleeping bags, endless snacks, medical equipment, and we flew north. A two-hour drive would take us to the start of the trek, then we’d have just enough time to make it to our first camp before dark.

The dusty road wound back and forth as it climbed steadily up from the valley. The kids were entranced by the view, or possibly carsick. Either way, after an hour it was clearly ‘snack time’. We pulled over and I opened the boot. Apart from the changing bag, it was empty. After a few seconds, I cleared my throat: ‘Darling, where did you put our luggage?’ Silence. The luggage remained at the airport, and we spent that night at 9,800ft with no sleeping bags, a toilet perched on a precipice, and some wolves, but when trussed in the contents of the changing bag, the kids slept fine. There weren’t many clothes to wash after the trip, either. Boy 87, by Ele Fountain, is published by Pushkin Children’s Books (£6.99)

If we’re walking after dark, the kids ask if they need to watch out for leopards

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