Ntombi woke up from a nightmare in the middle of the night. In the dream she was wearing a long pink dress with lots of frills and her friend Asanda was putting a tiara with plastic flowers in her hair. They were in the changing rooms at the church hall where the auditions were going to be for the Teen Voice competition. First Ntombi thought she had won the competition and she was really excited. She was ready to walk out on the stage in front of hundreds of people and be given flowers and a recording contract. Pink wasn’t really her colour, but who cared, when she was about to become a pop star? But when she walked out into the hall there were no screaming teenage fans and no sign of a microphone. In fact the hall was full of men and women dressed in suits and formal dresses. And there at the back, next to the door was her mother. She was also dressed in a huge pink dress, with more frills and lace than Ntombi’s. For a second Ntombi thought that this might be her own wedding, and that at any minute the handsomest, coolest guy was going to appear, walk towards her and announce that he was her fiancé. But then Zakes walked in, and Ntombi realised that this was no fairytale wedding and she definitely wasn’t the princess. She was a bridesmaid at her mother’s wedding to Zakes. The dream had just turned into a terrible nightmare.
Her mother was smiling and kissing Zakes. He was smiling that fake smile. Before she knew it her mother was calling her to the bridal procession. Her sister appeared in an identical pink dress. The whole thing made Ntombi feel sick.
“What’s wrong, Ntombi?” Suddenly her mother had the face of a witch. “Can’t you be happy for us?”
“Just wait.” Zakes gripped her arm and led her away so her mother couldn’t hear what he was about to say. His breath was warm and stank of beer as he lowered his voice.“There’s no escaping from me now,” he said. “You will do exactly as I say or there will be trouble. I am the boss in your house.” He let her go and she rubbed her arm; his fat fingers had left marks on her skin. She watched as her mother took Zakes’ arm and walked up the aisle and up the stairs to the stage where a priest was waiting to marry them.
Ntombi had to do something to stop them – nobody else was. She tried to run but her feet were glued to the ground. She opened her mouth to scream but no words came out. Zakes took the ring and was about to slip it on her mother’s finger.
She must have made a noise when she woke up because her mother was standing next to her bed.
“What’s the matter, baby girl?” she said. “Did you have a bad dream?” She wasn’t a witch. She was the loving, kind mother Ntombi had known before Zakes came along.
All Ntombi could say was, “You came back.”
“Of course I came back. And I want to thank you for cooking supper and looking after your sister last night. I had a really good time with Zakes. You know things are going very well with him. I wouldn’t be surprised if…”
“No,” Ntombi said quickly. So it was true he was going to ask her to marry him.
“I was going to say, I wouldn’t be surprised if he asks me to his end-of-year work party.”
“At the car dealership?” Ntombi asked warily. She was sure there was no car dealership. Or else that it was a front for something else that Zakes was up to. Something illegal and dangerous. She had heard talk in their neighbourhood that he was in some shady business. Whenever his cell rang when she was around, he switched it off without answering it. Once he hadn’t seen her come up behind him while he was talking, and he had shouted at her.
“Never do that again, sneaking up on me like that when I’m on my cell.”
But her mother wouldn’t listen to the rumours. She said that people just wanted to bad-mouth him because he was successful.
“Zakes says it’s going to be the whole national team of sales reps at some smart hotel. I can’t wait.” Her mother sounded so proud of him. Ntombi’s heart sank. Nothing had changed.
“Thanks for the tea,” was all she said.
“It’s a pleasure.” Her mother hesitated. Ntombi waited. She knew what was coming.
“Zakes has invited me out tonight…”
“But Mama, you went out last night, and the night before.”
“I know. But he wants me to meet a friend of his, who could get me a job.”
“You have a job.”
“A better one. Please, Ntombi. I promise I’ll do something nice with you on Saturday. I promise.” Ntombi looked at her mother: she sounded like a teenager herself, pleading like this to go out with her boyfriend. And making promises she couldn’t keep.
As Ntombi watched her mother leave for work that morning she was more worried than ever. What if she gave up her job at the school for some false promise by some sleazy friend of Zakes and burned all her bridges? What if she landed up without any job? How would they survive? No, she had to find a way to make her mother see the truth about Zakes. But she would need help. This was something she couldn’t do on her own.
“Hurry up Zinzi. We’ll be late for the taxi,” Ntombi called to her sister who was pulling her short hair back into a little ponytail.
They had to run down the sandy track between the prefab RDP houses, around the corner, past the spaza shop and across the open stretch of ground (where the council had put one swing, that was now broken) to the taxi rank on the other side.
Mrs Thembeka who sold veggies near the taxi rank, greeted Ntombi. “You girls are going to get fit the way you have to run for your taxi every morning,” she laughed. “Wait till the Olympics come to South Africa. You’ll be ready.”
Ntombi was out of breath as she pushed Zinzi onto the taxi in front of her. She gave the gaadjie her coins and sat down.
There was a whistle from the back seat. Ntombi usually avoided the older schoolboys who sat in a row at the back. They were eighteen and had a reputation as the ‘bad boys’ of Harmony High’s matric year. But this morning she made the mistake of turning around. She couldn’t tell who had whistled, but the boy in the middle of the back row winked at her. He then gave her such a smile that she couldn’t help but smile in return, before turning away quickly to look out the front window. She felt like everyone in the taxi was staring at her and she wanted to shrink under the seats. He was so good-looking and so cute – that smile was hard to resist. At school she had seen him at break time hanging out with his friends down at the sports shed. His name was Mzi. Asanda’s older sister Tilly had gone out with his older brother Themba, when she was in Grade 12, but it had ended badly. Really badly. Tilly had got pregnant and Themba had denied that it was his baby and had ignored her from then on.
“Those Mlongenis are no good,” her father used to say. “Stay clear of them.” And then when Tilly got pregnant, their dad threatened: “If I see any of you so much as speaking to one of those boys you will not be welcome in this house. You’ll be on your own. Do you understand?” Ntombi and Zinzi had nodded in silence. But where was their dad now? And was it really fair to blame the younger brother for the older brother’s behaviour. And here he was winking at her – and so cute!
All these thoughts went racing through her mind as the taxi hooted and screamed along in the fast lane. Each day was a dice with death in these taxis, and the music pumped so loudly it was giving Ntombi a headache even before she got to school. This one had gansta rap blasting out, an angry man’s voice shouting and swearing, with the boys at the back joining in the chorus.
As Ntombi stepped down from the taxi her school bag fell, and all the books were splayed out on the pavement for everyone to see. She nearly died of embarrassment. Everyone was stepping over and around her as they got off the taxi, in a hurry to get to assembly before the bell went. Everyone except for Mzi. Ntombi looked up. He was standing over her. For a moment she panicked. There was no one else around. The taxi driver had driven off. They were alone on the pavement. Who could she call? But then he squatted down next to her. “Let me help you,” he said in the sweetest, gentlest voice she had ever heard. A voice that could melt butter.
He started collecting her books and handing them to her. She put them back in her bag. As he passed her an English workbook his hand touched hers. She looked up, and for a second they stared into each other’s eyes. Then she quickly put the book away and stood up. “Thanks,” she said quickly.
“It’s a pleasure, helping someone as cute as you. You know, I’ve been watching you since the beginning of term.”
“Really?” said Ntombi, feeling a flutter in her stomach. What was she doing talking to one of the Mlongeni boys? And alone? Her father would chase her out of the house. But her father was who-knows-where? “I must run. I’m late,” she said.
“Meet me down at the sports shed at break time. I’d like to give you something,” he said and smiled that cute smile again. As she ran up the stairs into the school foyer she turned. He was still standing watching her. “Promise?” he called after her.
“Yes,” she called back, feeling that she was flying.