Ntombi looked at the five rand coin in her hand. “What does she think I can buy with five rand?” she thought. One small bag of chips at the spaza, and a small packet of sweets, which she’d have to share with Zinzi. It wouldn’t buy her what she really needed – just ten minutes of time with her mother, when they could sit down and watch TV together, or talk, like they used to.
Just then Zinzi came in. She had been playing soccer in the street and her knee was grazed and bleeding. “Where’s Mama?” she asked Ntombi.
“Guess,” said Ntombi. “It’s not that hard.”
“I thought you had singing practice this evening?’ said Zinzi as she slumped on the couch and dabbed at her cut with a tissue.
“Not any more. Mama said I’ve got to stay home and look after you.”
“I can look after myself.”
“You’re twelve,” said Ntombi, fetching the Dettol from the bathroom and dabbing it on Zinzi’s cut.
“Ouch!” Zinzi complained. “Stop it. You’re hurting me.”
“Don’t act like a baby. You don’t want it to get worse, do you? Do you want to go to hospital with an infected cut?”
“Why are you in such a bad mood?”
“Wouldn’t you be if you were missing a chance to go to the national finals of South Africa’s Teen Voice Competition?”
“I thought the judges were only coming next week?”
“They are. But every practice is really important. Mr Masondo says that we have to work hard and make Harmony High proud. Otherwise he won’t let us compete.”
Ntombi had been chosen, along with ten others at Harmony High, to perform for a panel of talent scouts that was travelling around the country auditioning high school students for the Teen Voice singing competition. If she was chosen out of the ten students from her school then she would go on to the national finals in Jozi. The prize was R10 000 and a recording contract. Ntombi had promised herself that she would work as hard as she could, attend every practice, and go to the nationals. Sometimes she even let herself dream of winning the competition. It would change her life – she would work really hard and produce an album. She’d buy a proper house for her family, and make sure her sister finished school. With the money she could go to university and study to become…
Just then there was the sound of girls laughing outside in the street.
“It’s the giraffes,” Zinzi said from the couch where she was watching Days on TV. She called Ntombi’s three girlfriends the giraffes because they were taller than other girls. In turn, they called Ntombi “shortie”, although she was average height. Ntombi opened the door and hugged her friends Busi, Asanda and Lettie. At least she could rely on them for support. Asanda and Lettie had also been chosen to compete in the singing competition and Ntombi could see that they were on their way to the practice. Busi was going along to watch in the hope of attracting the attention of Unathi, who was also competing. At the last practice she sat in the front row seats in the hall, blowing kisses to Unathi and holding up a big piece of paper with “I love Unathi” painted in lipstick. Unathi had just smiled and waved. Ntombi had told Busi that Unathi had a girlfriend back in Jozi, where he was from, but Busi wouldn’t listen. She didn’t want to hear.
“Come on, lazy girl,” Asanda laughed. “We’ll be late.” The practice was in the school hall, a taxi-ride away.
“I can’t go,” Ntombi told them.
“You must be joking!” Lettie said. “What’s wrong with you? I thought this was your dream?”
“Mama went out and I have to look after Zinzi.”
“You know what this means. Mr Masondo is not going to be pleased.”
“I know.” Ntombi was close to tears and her friends could see it. Mr Masondo was their singing coach and he was strict. Two missed rehearsals and you were out of the competition.
Asanda gave her a big hug. “Listen, we’ll bring you the lyrics back and help you practise. Cheer up. I’ll tell Mr Masondo that you got food poisoning.” Asanda was the queen of excuses, and with her charm the teachers always believed her.
“Thanks chommies. You’re the best.” Ntombi tried to smile bravely, but she felt terrible.
“By the way, there’s a party on Saturday at Thabiso’s Tavern. We’re going,” Busi said. “Why don’t you come? It should be fun. Unathi’s going to be there with his cousin from Jozi.”
“How many times do I have to tell you Unathi has a girlfriend?” Ntombi despaired of Busi. She really lost her head over boys and forgot who she was – the intelligent and charismatic girl who had a great future if she could just stay focused.
“He’s never mentioned her,” said Busi. “And anyway evidently his cousin is even better looking, and I’ve always wanted to go to Jozi. They say the men are hot up there.”
“You’re going to burn yourself one day,” joked Ntombi. “Just be careful.”
“Yes, Mama,” the girls laughed.
Ntombi watched as her friends ran down the road to catch the taxi. They were laughing and chatting. She went back inside and shut the door. The girls were right to call her ‘Mama’ – that’s what she was at the moment, and she was only fifteen. It was like her mother and her had swopped roles. The other girls used to complain about their strict mothers and tell Ntombi she was lucky. But Ntombi had noticed they didn’t say that anymore, not since Zakes had arrived on the scene. And Ntombi did not want to be a mother. Not for a long time. Not until she had finished studying and definitely not with someone she didn’t love and respect!
“I’m hungry,” complained Zinzi, who was watching The Bold and the Beautiful.
Ntombi wanted to just walk away from the house. But she knew she couldn’t.
She put the last bit of mielie meal into the pot. Sometimes she loved porridge for supper. But she was getting tired of it now. Before Zakes, her mother had always made sure that there was enough food in the house for them. It was a struggle on her salary, but she would always cook them a good meal in the evening and they would sit together and chat about the day. She had been sad a lot, but then they also had good times together. They went shopping in town on Saturday at the end of the month when her mother would give them each pocket money to spend. Now she didn’t have time for them any more. Ntombi had been telling her how the fridge needed to be fixed (it kept going on and off) and that the drain at the back of the house was blocked again. That’s when she really missed her dad. He would have fixed it by now. And where was Zakes when something went wrong in their house – out selling cars?
She served the pap onto plates. “Careful, it’s hot,” she warned.
“Not this again,” complained Zinzi.
“Don’t tell me, tell Mama,” said Ntombi.“If she’s ever here to tell.” As they ate, on Bold, a soapie star reclined on a lounging chair beside a pool somewhere in America – somewhere hot and lush with lots of money. A butler handed her an ice cold cocktail… she didn’t have a care in the world. Her nanny was looking after her kids, and Ntombi knew that her fridge would be brimming with food. Just then there was a sizzling sound and a bang from the back of the TV. The smell of burned plastic filled the room.
“No!” screamed Zinzi. “Not the TV! My life has ended.” And she buried her face under a cushion.
“Don’t be such a drama queen!” yelled Ntombi. She went into the bedroom to get away from her sister, before she exploded like the TV. She lay on the bed she shared with Zinzi and started paging through a magazine. But she wasn’t reading the words. She kept thinking of Asanda and Lettie standing on the stage of the school hall, learning the words of that new song, and them all laughing and having fun as they got one step closer to the finals, while she was stuck in this dump with a younger sister who was driving her crazy and not helping one bit around the house.
She looked down at the glamorous pop stars in the mag. Who did she think she was, trying to compete with girls like this? Maybe she was dreaming after all. Maybe Zakes was right. Maybe she didn’t have what it took to be a Teen Voice star. “Why bother entering the competition,” he had said. “These days you have to have the whole package: the looks, the sex appeal and the voice. You’ll only be setting yourself up to be taken down.”
Her dad would never have said those hurtful words. He had told her that he was so proud of her when she had got into the choir at Harmony High. And when he had his employer’s car for a few days he had taken her to practices himself. Once when she wanted to go and get her ears pierced he had said, “Why spoil something so beautiful already?”
Now she didn’t even know where he was, or who he was with. Maybe he had a whole other family somewhere, another daughter, whom he loved now, more than her?
As she lay there she thought of the three promises she had made to herself on New Year’s eve three months ago. First: to enter the singing competition and go all the way to the final. Second: not to go out with a guy unless he was kind and respected her – not like the guy Busi had dated in the holiday, who had seemed the real deal – too good to be true – because he was too good to be true. He was good looking and clever, but he had left her with a broken heart and a broken arm after he had pushed her and she had tripped and fallen hard. If Ntombi and Asanda hadn’t run when they heard her cries from behind the sports shed at school, things might have been a lot worse. But when they appeared Ebenezer had left her and run – a coward at heart.
The third promise was to find her dad and bring him home. There was no way that she was going to let Zakes move in with them and pretend to be their father.