Ntombi couldn’t concentrate in class. All she could think of was Mzi’s hand touching hers, his smile, his words. She was lost in a dream world. This time it wasn’t a nightmare. It had a happy ending … Mzi and her on a beach holding hands. Mzi and her watching the sunset…
“Ntombi!” She looked up. Her English teacher, Mr Ntlanti, was standing next to her desk, and she hadn’t even noticed him come up beside her. “Ntombi, are you daydreaming?”
“Sorry, Mr Ntlanti.” She felt herself blushing. Mr Ntlanti was one of her favourite teachers. He didn’t just stand in front of the class and read out of books, expecting them to take notes. He asked them for their opinions, and had class discussions about relationships between girls and boys. Sometimes the boys would make silly comments, and even then Mr Ntlanti would laugh and tease them back.
Ntombi heard Asanda giggling behind her. “I wonder who Ntombi’s dreaming about?” Asanda said, just loud enough for the boys next to her to hear. But Mr Ntlanti had sharp ears.
“Class, that’s enough! We are not running a dating service here. Get on with your essays.” Mr Ntlanti turned back to Ntombi. “Ntombi, I heard you were in the singing competition,” he said. “We need someone to write about it for the school magazine. I wondered if you’d like to write a page. You can write anything. You could even write song lyrics.”
“Thanks. I’d love to.” She smiled up at him. Ntombi couldn’t believe it. She had always wanted to write for the school magazine. And to write music lyrics was even better. Mr Ntlanti had taken notice of her, out of all the kids in the class. And Mzi Mlongeni had taken notice of her too! This was turning out to be a really good day!
“Good.” Mr Ntlanti smiled, “I’ll tell Selwyn. He’s the editor. You’ll need to attend the editorial meeting on Friday.”
When the bell went Ntombi was the first out of the classroom. “Where you going in such a hurry?” Asanda called. Ntombi, Asanda, Lettie and Busi normally hung out together at break. They were best friends. And they were the best friends to have. Not like Xoliswa who pretended she was Ntombi’s friend, but then had gone around saying bad things about Ntombi behind her back. No, these girls were loyal to each other.
But this break time Ntombi couldn’t hang out with them. She had someone else to see. For a second she hesitated on the stairs. Normally there were no secrets between them. They all knew about it if there was a boy one of them liked, before the boy even knew. But Ntombi knew what they would say if she told them: “Are you crazy? Don’t you remember what that Mlongeni boy did to Tilly? And in matric? She had to wait a whole year before she could retake her exams. And does he support the child? No. Just pretends he knows nothing about it.”
“But that was Themba. This is Mzi…” Ntombi would argue. However she knew they would just shake their heads: “Like one, like the other. Didn’t Mzi nearly get expelled for drinking at school?” It was true, thought Ntombi, he had. She remembered him being called down to the office. But that was last year. She hadn’t heard anything since school started. Surely people could change? Hadn’t she changed? One day the boys didn’t notice her and the next she was being told she was cute by the hottest boy in Grade 12, and being asked to write for the mag. And didn’t she deserve some fun? All her friends had had boyfriends, even if they had only gone out for a few days! So she turned and ran down the stairs on her own, ignoring Asanda who called after her to wait.
Mzi was waiting, as he said he would be, outside the sports shed. But today, instead of being part of a group of boys, he was alone. When Ntombi came closer she saw him stub out a cigarette he had been smoking, and put something he had in his pocket in his mouth. Two thoughts raced through Ntombi’s mind. First: he shouldn’t be smoking. And then, that he looked like a film star – so casual and cool.
“Bad habit, I know,” he laughed as she walked up beside him. “I’m trying to give up. I’ve cut down to five a day – from twenty,” he added. “Want one?” He offered her a Dentyne.
“Thanks. Listen I haven’t got much time – I’ve got to go and see Selwyn about the magazine. They want me to write a story about this singing competition I’m in.” She stopped. She was being so uncool, telling him all this stuff. Talking non-stop like an excited child.
“This won’t take long,” he said touching her arm. “I wanted to ask you…” He suddenly became shy, looking down at his shoes. “I’ve been wanting to ask you if you’d like to go with me to the party at Thabiso’s this weekend.”
Ntombi bit her lip. She had promised her friends that they would go as a group. But when she had promised there was no Mzi in her life. “I…”
“Think about it,” Mzi said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
That afternoon when Ntombi got home she felt like she was floating on air. Surely Mzi wasn’t the boy everyone said he was? People could be mean, and jealous. He smoked – that was bad. But he was trying to give it up – that was good. He had helped her pick up her books – that was kind. No, she decided that she would make up her own mind about him. Suddenly it didn’t matter so much that her mother wasn’t there, or that the TV still wasn’t fixed. Nothing seemed so bad anymore. Suddenly the world looked rosier, because Mzi wanted to take her, not some glamorous babe, but her, shy Ntombi, who had never had a proper boyfriend, to the party. “What a difference a day makes…” she sang, as she started to tidy the house.
“What’s up with you?” asked Zinzi.
“I’m just happy. Am I not allowed to be happy?”
“What’s there to be happy about?” complained Zinzi. “I don’t see anything’s changed, do you? Mama’s out. There’s no TV, no food and I’m hungry.”
“I’ll go to the spaza shop,” said Ntombi. “I’ll cook something really nice.” She went to look in the tin where her mother usually left cash for them, in case of emergencies. It was empty. Reluctantly she took money she had saved up from her purse. She had intended to use it to have her hair braided for the party. But they had to eat.
At the spaza shop she bought rice, oil, a tin of pilchards, and some onions. Ntombi counted out her money; she was three rand short.
“I’ll have to leave the onions,” she said.
“Hi, Ntombi.” She heard a voice behind her and turned to see Olwethu. He must have come up really quietly because she didn’t hear him. Ntombi knew him from school; they’d been in choir together for a year. He was a bit older than her, and she had admired him: he was quiet, but when he did talk, what he said was always interesting, or funny. He was tall and thin, not hunky like Mzi, but not bad looking either. When he stopped coming to choir, Asanda had told her that he had to drop out of school for a term, because his father had died of AIDS and his mother had died in a taxi accident on the way back from his funeral, leaving him with a brother and sister to care for. How much tragedy could one family take, thought Ntombi, looking at Olwethu now. He was smiling at her.
“Hey, I’ll give you some onions. I’ve got a bag at home.” His voice was low and kind.
“Don’t worry,” Ntombi said, feeling shy.
“Really, it’s not a problem,” Olwethu assured her, “I live just around the corner now.”
“Are you sure?” Ntombi asked. “It’s just my mother’s out and I have to cook for my little sister.”
“I know what that’s like,” Olwethu said. “Little sisters can be difficult.” They laughed.
Ntombi walked with Olwethu down the street and round the corner to one of the shacks in the next road. The inside of his shack was small but cosy. There was an old TV in the corner, and colourful newspaper pictures on the walls as wallpaper. As Ntombi came in Olwethu’s sister and brother jumped up and greeted her. An old lady, who was sitting in the only chair in the room, put down her knitting to greet Ntombi. “Hello Gogo, don’t get up,” said Ntombi quickly.
“Ntombi was short at the shop and she needs some onions to cook for her sister,” explained Olwethu, handing his grandmother her glasses that had fallen to the floor.
“You are welcome, child,” the granny said. “Give her some fruit too.” Ntombi saw that they didn’t have much, but Olwethu was picking out the best pieces of fruit to give her.
“Ntombi’s singing in the competition I was telling you about,” said Olwethu.
“Sing something for us!” His sister begged.
“Hey … stop pestering her,” said Olwethu. Ntombi could see she was disappointed.
“I can try,” she said. She started singing – softly at first, then louder as she got her courage up. When she finished they all clapped. She felt really good.
“Your parents must be so proud of you,” the granny said. “You are so talented: a beautiful voice for a beautiful girl.”
“How many songs do you have to sing?” asked Olwethu.
Ntombi was not used to being the centre of attention.“Three songs. I’ve chosen one R&B, one gospel, and a ballad.”
“And which one is your mother’s favourite?” asked the granny.
“Well, actually…” Ntombi could lie and pick any one. But looking at the granny’s open face she suddenly didn’t want to lie. “Well, actually my mother’s been too busy to listen to me…”
“Who could be too busy to listen to that?” asked the granny. Before she knew it, Ntombi found that she was telling them about how their father had left, how her mother had got a new boyfriend, and how she didn’t have time for them anymore.
“That must be hard for you,” said Olwethu. Ntombi suddenly felt bad. Here he was listening to her and sympathising, when he had lost both his parents.
“It is difficult when a new man comes into your house,” said the granny.
“Especially someone like Zakes,” said Ntombi. She saw the granny and Olwethu exchange a look – a look of what? Fear, anxiety?
“Not Zakes Gamadala? The one who is driving that silver BMW?”
“That’s the one,” said Ntombi, suddenly feeling a familiar uneasy dread in her stomach. So there was something about Zakes that her mother didn’t know? It wasn’t just rumours. She had felt it all along. But what?
“Tell me,” she said to them. “Please.”
The granny shook her head. “All I know is, that man is a cheat, and maybe a thief. He sold my friend a car and after she paid him, she found out that the car was stolen. He wouldn’t give her money back.”