Ntombi lay in bed with her cellphone in her hand. Her head was spinning from the drink she’d had at the party. She clung onto her phone like a lifeline in the dark – a lifeline of love to her friends and safety. If only she had her father’s cellphone number, everything would be okay. She needed his advice right now. What had happened at the party had been so confusing. Mzi was confusing. She couldn’t make him out. When he was being sweet and sensitive she felt so proud to be his girlfriend, but when that angry wall went up, and she couldn’t reach the kindness in Mzi anymore, he frightened her. Why couldn’t he be content to kiss her? Why did guys always want more? Maybe she just didn’t understand them? If her dad were here, he could give her some good advice, advice her mother was too busy to bother with.
And then there was love. Why couldn’t love just be good? Why couldn’t it just be simple? She finally fell asleep with these thoughts swirling around in her head. She wanted so badly for things to work out with Mzi, for things to be different and romantic, like in the movies…
As she slid down into her dreams she tried to see Mzi’s face; she wanted to take him into the dream with her. At least there things could be perfect. They could walk hand in hand on warm white sand; next to a tropical sea on some paradise island; lie on the beach, his fingers lightly tracing across her face, her arms; his warm lips pressing down on hers, gently. His breath warm and sweet in her ear, against her hair. “I love you,” he would whisper, “and I always will.” They would talk for hours. He would help her with the lyrics for her first song. She would blot out what had happened down at the river. She would dream up a different ending to the night.
But where she went in her dream she couldn’t control. And however hard she tried to pull Mzi down with her into her dream, as soon as she was asleep she couldn’t hold onto him anymore. And soon the dream became a nightmare. The paradise island was replaced by somewhere noisy, and filled with fluorescent lights. She was standing backstage in a dressing room, and all she could feel was a terrible knot in her stomach. She could hear someone singing on the stage, which must be through the door in front of her. The singing stopped and she heard clapping and cheering. A woman who was doing make-up and hair sat her down in front of a mirror. She started smoothing Ntombi’s hair and putting in clips. “We’d better hurry,” she said. “You’re on in ten minutes.”
Just then the door to the stage opened and Lettie came running down the stairs. “That was fantastic,” she said. “They just loved me. Did you hear them cheering?” she asked Ntombi, then blew her a kiss and disappeared. Ntombi wanted to stop her, talk to her. Was this a concert? Was this the audition that would get her into the Teen Voice final? Where was she? And what had happened to Mzi?
She suddenly felt sick and had to run to the toilet, where she threw up. Ugh! She looked at her face in the mirror – she was all made-up. She didn’t look like herself anymore. Where had the real Ntombi gone? She just wanted to be herself again. But when she came out, the stylist was ooing and aahing.
“Where have you been? You’re up girl. Good luck. You look beautiful! Much better than before. Not that you weren’t pretty…” her voice trailed off.
Ntombi was walking out onto a huge stage. The lights were dazzling and blinded her. Every step she took she thought she would fall over in the ridiculous high heels the stylist had squashed onto her feet before she went on. This was not how she wanted it to be – how she had planned. She was going to wear a simple, beautiful dress with flat sandals, and very little make-up, to the auditions. She would be true to herself, not some fake. But here she was in this frilly ridiculous dress, and shoes that made her trip and lurch forward towards the mike that was waiting for her in the middle of the stage.
She didn’t know how long she had been standing there, holding the mike, when she heard a cough off stage. She turned. “Cue music,” the man mouthed. The audience had gone silent.
Then the music came on. Ntombi felt better; she knew this song so well. She could do this. Her eyes had adjusted to the lights and she could pick out people in the audience. There was her mother, with something weird in her hair, waving and blowing her kisses, there was Zakes slouched back in the next seat with his arms folded on his beer belly.
In her dream Ntombi started to sing. It was beautiful; she could see on the faces of the audience that they were amazed. There was no doubt that she would be singing her way into the final.
Her eyes moved slowly across the crowds and then stopped. And in that second her voice stopped too. Her mouth was open but no sound came out, however hard she tried; and even worse, she had forgotten the words to the song. There in the audience, right near the back of the hall, sat Mzi – and next to him sat Thumi, and his arm was around her. He wasn’t even looking at Ntombi. His head was bent and he was kissing Thumi on the neck, and she was smiling up at Ntombi – that “cat who got the cream” smile. Suddenly the audience was booing. Then someone in the front row stood up and shouted, “Get her off! Get her off!”
Then she was falling…
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Zinzi was shaking her. Ntombi sat up in bed.
“Where am I?” she shouted.
“Ssh, you’ll wake Mama,” said Zinzi. “God girl, you must have been having a really bad nightmare. You nearly knocked me out, you were thrashing around so much.” Ntombi’s heart was still racing. She told herself to breathe deeply. “And anyway, what’s that stink? Have you been drinking?” Zinzi asked, disgusted, then pulled the blanket over her head. “Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
The evening came flooding back to Ntombi. Her head suddenly hurt really badly and she felt nauseous. She walked through into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water, then sat curled up under a blanket on the couch. There was no way she could get back to sleep now. She was too scared she’d go back onto that stage and have to face the audience again.
She had heard somewhere that dreams never lied. Was this a warning? Was Mzi with Thumi right now? Was she going to mess up her audition? She promised herself that from that minute on she would start rehearsing every day until the audition. But what about Mzi? Hadn’t he told her that Thumi was a friend who was just going through a rough time? Why am I so insecure? Ntombi asked herself. Insecure girls lose their boyfriends because they become too clingy and jealous. Wasn’t that what had happened to her friend Prudence, last year?
Prudence had started going out with this guy and it was all a dream come true. They were never apart. But then, after two weeks she started getting suspicious. She got hold of his cellphone and started to check through his messages, accusing him of SMSing other girls. He had shouted at her for invading his privacy. She had pleaded with him, and said she wouldn’t do it again, if he would only promise her that he wasn’t seeing anyone else. He had promised but it wasn’t enough. She had started stalking him everywhere he went until he couldn’t take it anymore and broke up with her – it was a mess.
No, Ntombi refused to be like that. She would trust Mzi. She would not be the clingy girlfriend. She’d give him the space he needed to sort things out. Then things would be different. But by nine o’clock, when everyone was up and having breakfast, Ntombi’s resolve had started to weaken. She had already checked her cellphone a few times to see if there were any new messages. Her mom must have seen her checking her cellphone because she came and wrapped her arms around Ntombi and kissed the top of her head. “You know that watching your phone isn’t going to make him call,” she said and laughed.
“I wasn’t,” Ntombi protested, but then she laughed. It felt so good to have her mother’s arms around her, and the old teasing, fun mother back again. She knew that this was her mother’s way of saying sorry for her angry slap the night before.
“Yes, I’m not too old to remember what it was like. The first love,” said her mother. “You know, when I met your dad I couldn’t eat or sleep for a week. I was a real mess. Of course in those days we didn’t have cellphones. We didn’t have any phones. No, I had to wait to see him in church on Sundays. It was torture.”
“So Dad was your first love?” asked Zinzi.
“Is that so surprising? He was very romantic your dad, when he…”
“Ugh…” said Zinzi. “Too much information.”
“I was going to say that he used to sing for me as he came down the street. He didn’t care if people laughed. He had a very good voice, your father.”
“Like Romeo and Juliet, serenading,” said Ntombi. “Don’t you miss him?” It was out before Ntombi could stop herself. She could see the expression change on her mother’s face as she stood up and went to the kitchen.
“Much good missing him will do me,” she muttered. Ntombi felt a glimmer of hope, somewhere deep inside. That part of her mother was still reachable, the part that loved her dad. She could hear it in her mother’s voice. There was hope.
Just then there was a familiar sound outside the door. A giggle of girls.
“The giraffes have arrived,” announced Zinzi.