Now You See Me by Cheryl Parry
Invisibility, or rather the fear of it, had made me do it. Made me come to Ethiopia for an adventure before I faded away beneath the mantle of middle age. But as I stand at the top of Churchill Avenue, invisibility doesn't seem such a bad thing.
'You. You. You.'
The voices are as insistent as the small hands held out in expectation.
'Mother. Mother. Mother.'
The words as imploring as the brown eyes that follow my every move.
I look about me, panicking, remembering the advice that Roger had given me as he waved me off that morning.
'Walk on. With purpose.'
Easy for him to say – six foot seven, every inch the gentleman traveller, unruffled in his linen suit, a cool head beneath his panama hat – looking imperiously down on the beggars. Harder for me – four foot eleven, crumpled and wilting in the heat and dust of Addis Ababa – trying to avoid eye contact with the children who have stopped kicking a plastic bottle back and forth over the uneven pavement and are now surrounding me.
The knot in my gut tightens; a colonic wringing of hands that has been with me since the journey from Bole airport in a dilapidated blue and white Lada taxi. For three days I have been in a fog of disorientation as Roger conducted a whistle-stop tour. My senses are overloaded by the sights, sounds and smells of this city and its contrasts: the house of cards shanty towns bedecked with washing lines and discarded tyres; the marbled foyer of the Sheraton Hotel with its chandeliers and fountains; internet cafés where teenagers tweet and send friend requests while outside barefooted children play with a swingball made from a bundle of rags tied to a lamppost; ancient hand washing and coffee making ceremonies; the cacophony of the busy roads, the serenity of the cathedrals.
Tomorrow I am travelling south, alone, to a health centre in Yirga Alem to teach ultrasound to midwives. I have no idea what to expect but I realise that in order to be of any use I must get a grip. I have to do this. I have to walk down this street. On my own.
The sun beats down. The brightness of pink and orange coffins stacked in an open-fronted ramshackle shop hurts my eyes. Further down the hill corrugated metal shacks give way to multi-storey buildings trembling in the haze. Horns beep, brakes screech, vendors shout their wares.
The children are still following me.
'Mother. Mother. Birr. Birr. You. You. You.'
Pied Pipering down the road, I decide to take my life in my hands and cross the street at a zebra crossing that is only there for decoration. As I reach the kerb a bus pulls in, its doors gasping as they disgorge passengers onto the pavement in front of me. The conductor smiles as he sings out the next destination.
And still the children clamour. I speed up a bit. So do they, trotting alongside and in front of me. I'm afraid I will trip as I try to avoid them. Enough is enough.
'Hid. Hid,' I shout, whirling around and around, hoping I have used the correct word to tell them to go.
They stop abruptly, shrug their shoulders and meander back up the hill.
I walk on. With purpose.
I call into the little gallery where Roger had previously bought some wooden carvings. Mohammed the shopkeeper welcomes me like an old friend, asks after 'Dr Roger' and insists that I join him for a macchiato. Like most of the people I have met here he is gracious and hospitable, willing to share what little he has.
There is no sign of any beggars when I go back out onto Churchill Avenue. I walk until I reach a bar. At last, sitting on the terrace with a bottle of cold Castel, I begin to relax. Yellow-billed kites circle high above me, climbing and swooping in a gracefully choreographed display as they scavenge for food. In this small oasis I take stock. It may have only been a walk down the street but I did it and I no longer feel intimidated by the incongruities of this city, of the squalor and splendour, the poverty and wealth, the ancient and modern. I am exhilarated. I can do this. I am visible and I can face whatever tomorrow brings.
But first I have to find my way back to the hotel.