The girls walked arm in arm from the taxi to the school hall, where the rehearsals for the Teen Voice auditions were already in full swing. They could hear one of the guys singing the words to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
“Oh my God,” said Asanda. “Listen to him. He sounds like a stuck pig.”
“Yes. If that’s the competition we’ll sail through.” It was so good to be with her friends again, joking and having a good time. It helped Ntombi forget about the shed and what had happened there. She would think about it later. There must be some explanation for why Mzi was there, why those boys had all that money, and who was in the silver BMW. She would work it out, but not now.
Once she was on the stage going through the lyrics to Respect (a classic by Aretha Franklin) she felt so good. With the mike in her hand she had the feeling that this was the only thing that mattered to her in the whole world, being on this stage and singing. It made her feel alive. So often she felt like she didn’t belong, like she had been given the wrong part – that there was another life somewhere that she was meant to be living. But here on stage, singing, she knew deep inside that this is what she was meant to do. It felt so right, and she was good at it. The other students seemed to think so too, because they applauded after she performed.
“You go girl!” shouted Asanda. Ntombi had been worried because she had missed the week when they had chosen their R&B song. But Mr Masondo came up to her after the rehearsal and handed her a sheet of music. Ntombi looked down: it was True, by Brandy.
“How did you know? I love this song,” she enthused. Mr Masondo laughed.
“I hear you humming it all the time, so it wasn’t hard to guess. If you need extra help you’ve just got to call. Here’s my number.” Ntombi entered it on her cellphone and couldn’t help noticing that there were no new messages. The thought that Mzi might never SMS her again flashed through her mind. She shouldn’t have gone down to the shed to look for him. Why had she done it, she asked herself again.
“Make sure you call so I can help you rehearse it,” Mr Masondo said. “That way you’ll have a much better chance in the auditions.”
“I promise,” said Ntombi. She quickly put her cellphone back in her pocket.
The girls walked through the streets together on their way back to Ntombi’s house. It felt like old times. They stopped at the shop and pooled their money to buy a packet of Dentyne. They laughed when a group of amarhuzu whistled at them as they passed.
“Kancane ngani! We’re out of your league, boys. Forget it!” Lettie called back to them as they turned the corner. They were princesses, idols, even before the auditions and they felt like they owned the streets. Three best friends forever. Nothing could get them down. Not tonight.
It was still light when they reached Ntombi’s, and it was warm as well. There seemed to be something in the air because everyone seemed to be in a good mood. Even Mr Mashu, who normally cursed them when they walked past his stand, was giving out free sweets to the kids. And for once Ntombi was relieved that her mother wasn’t at home. They would have the house to themselves, as Zinzi was out too. They put on the ghetto-blaster and started doing karaoke to the music, using a hairbrush as a mike. They were onto their third song when there was a knock on the door.
“That will be Hlengiwe. I told her to meet us here to do your braids,” Asanda said. Hlengiwe did the best braids south of the Limpopo, Asanda always said, and she also worked at a beauty salon that did facials and pedicures. “I’d marry you if you weren’t already married,” Asanda used to tease Hlengiwe.
“So,” Hlengiwe said, putting her bag of tricks down on the carpet and opening an album full of different hairstyles, “what’s it to be?” Ntombi settled on the twist and Hlengiwe set to work attaching the braids. They were having so much fun, chatting and listening to music that time passed quickly and soon it was dark.
As Hlengiwe was doing the last braid there was a knock at the door. Ntombi wondered who it could be. Her sister or mother wouldn’t knock because they both had keys, and she wasn’t expecting anyone. She opened the door to see Olwethu’s sister, Linkie, standing there. She looked so small and nervous that Ntombi wanted to take her in her arms and protect her. “Is this a bad time?” Linkie whispered.
“Not at all. Come inside.” Ntombi opened the door wider and let the little girl in. She was obviously frightened.
“What’s happened? Is there anything wrong? Is it your gogo?” asked Ntombi. The girl shook her head. “No, but I need to have a word with you in private,” she whispered.
“Don’t worry,” said Ntombi. “The girls were just leaving.”
“You look beautiful,” whispered Linkie.
Ntombi walked outside to say goodbye to the girls and Hlengiwe. “I’ll see you tomorrow to finish and twist, beautiful girl,” said Hlengiwe.
“We’ll come round and collect you before the party,” said Asanda. “We can all go to Thabiso’s together.” Ntombi hesitated.
“Unless you’ve got other plans?” said Lettie, looking at her accusingly.
“Speak to the hand, girlfriend. We not good enough for you all of a sudden?”
“Leave her be,” Asanda chipped in. “If she wants to go with Mzi that’s okay. We’ll see her there.”
“You trust him to pitch?” said Lettie. “Rather you than me.” Ntombi didn’t want what had been a great afternoon to end in an argument. She gave Lettie a hug.
“I’ll see you guys there,” she said. “Now I have to go and see what Linkie needs.”
Lettie took her hand and looked in her eyes; she was serious. “Just be careful tomorrow night,” she said, and then she joined Asanda who was waving down a taxi.
Before Ntombi went back inside, a cellphone message beeped in her pocket.
Thinking of u – cant wait to c u 2moro…Mzi
It was as if Mzi had heard them talking. Ntombi found herself looking up and down the street, half expecting Mzi to come walking around the corner. But there was no one. The girls had gone and the street was empty. She went back inside and closed the door. He had SMSed. Why had she worried so much? She should have trusted him. And now she felt that warmth inside again, like a secret smile. Lettie was wrong, she thought. Linkie came and took her hand.
“I wish I could have braids like you,” she said.
“One day you can have any hairstyle you want to,” said Ntombi confidently.
“I don’t know. I will have to get money first,” said Linkie.
“Will you promise me something?” said Ntombi.
“Promise me you’ll finish school.”
Linkie nodded. “I promise,” she whispered.
“Good,” said Ntombi. “Now what can I do for you?”
“It’s a bit embarrassing.” Linkie stared at the floor. “You see, Olwethu doesn’t know I’m here.”
“It’s about him?”
Suddenly Ntombi felt worried. “Has anything happened to him?”
Linkie shook her head. “No. Well, maybe.”
“I don’t know how to say this.” Linkie was studying her shoes carefully. “You see I think Olwethu would kill me if he knew I was here talking to you, and that I was about to tell you that…”
“That he really likes you, and I know he wants to invite you to the party at Thabiso’s tomorrow. But he’s just too shy to ask. So I thought I’d…” she said all in a rush, and then looked up expectantly. Ntombi felt her heart sink to her shoes. How could she tell Linkie that she was going to Thabiso’s with someone else – one of the coolest guys at school? She really didn’t want to hurt Olwethu, or this girl with all the hope shining out of her eyes. But she had to.
“Listen, Linkie,” she said, sitting down beside her on the couch and taking her hands.
“You know I really like Olwethu?”
“Yes,” said Linkie, her eyes glowing. “That’s what I thought. Oh, I knew I was right to come here.”
“I really like him but …” How could Ntombi explain this? “I like him as a friend, not as a boyfriend.”
“Oh.” Linkie looked confused.
“Olwethu’s great! We chat. I like spending time with him…but…”
“Yes, that’s why I thought to come. You see, I could tell you really liked chatting and each other’s company…” She looked like she was thinking about something. “You don’t think he’s good looking – is that why?”
“No, I do. It’s just that…” How could she explain chemistry to a ten-year-old?
“I think I understand,” said Linkie standing up. “And don’t worry.” She turned to Ntombi. “I won’t tell him.”
“Thanks,” said Ntombi walking to the door with Linkie, and waving goodbye. She felt terrible. But what could she do? Why couldn’t life be simple?