“Why so edgy?” asked Mahlodi. “You’ve checked your cellphone every five minutes for the past hour!”

“My boyfriend hasn’t called,” replied Ntombi. “I’ve left a message, and a missed call.”

Ntombi had rung Olwethu and SMSed him. She had needed to after what had happened with Alex. The only way to get back onto safe ground was to remind herself just how much and why she loved her boyfriend. But Olwethu hadn’t answered.

“Don’t act desperate now,” said Mahlodi. “Maybe he’s busy, maybe he needs some space.”

“Space?” Ntombi sounded doubtful. Wasn’t her being in Jozi giving him enough space already?

“Yes, best thing in relationships. Don’t crowd the other person – it just makes them want to run away. Keep a bit of mystery. Have a bit of faith.”

Was she right? Must she still play a game with Olwethu, pretending that she didn’t love him too much? Why was it all so confusing, thought Ntombi. Why wasn’t he answering? Was he with another girl?

Just then the twins came into the rec room, booted the nerdy boy off the sofa and flopped down. Mahlodi saw Ntombi’s expression. “Just imagine those twins with guys,” she said. “It’s a good thing they didn’t want to get their claws into Dirk – he’d be dead by now!”

They laughed. Ntombi could see that they would be bitchy with boys. But she wasn’t like that. She was faithful, she had promised herself in love to Olwethu. At the same time, she thought, if I can find another guy attractive, share things with him and want him to flirt with me, then Olwethu can do the same. She couldn’t bear that thought. Double standards, she told herself. The only thing to do was to avoid Alex … but she had tried that before.

She was relieved when Mahlodi invited her to come and play soccer with her and Katrina after lunch. They had some free time and she didn’t want to go to the rec room as that was where Alex and the boys had headed.

“Come on! I’ll make soccer players of you girls before you know it!” joked Mahlodi as they made their way to the soccer pitch.

Ntombi had never liked soccer, but Mahlodi had been so good to her. And it would be great to do something fun – it would release the stress of practising for the finals coming up so soon. And it would help her to forget her problems. Katrina and Mahlodi had become good friends over the last couple of days, just like the giraffes back home. As they started kicking the ball around, some boys joined them. One stood in the goal. “Come on, girls, I’ll give you R5 if you can get a ball past me!”

Ntombi ran up and kicked with all her might – and tripped over. “That would have been a great kick,” said the boy, “if it had actually touched the ball.” The boys all laughed. “Girls playing soccer,” one of them said. “Ag shame.”

They didn’t see Mahlodi running up with a ball until it was too late. Her shot went hard into the top left corner. The boys stopped laughing. “But I wasn’t ready,” said the goalie.

“Fine,” said Mahlodi. “Ready now?”

He nodded. She ran forward, pretending to shoot at the top corner again, and he jumped. But as he jumped she hit the ball hard and flat, straight into the open half of the goal. Some boys cheered.

Mahlodi held out her hand. “R5, please.”

The boy reluctantly put his hand into his pocket, and tossed a coin at her.

“You were fantastic,” said Ntombi as they walked back. “I can’t believe how quick you are, how fast. And the way you ran – it was amazing.” She thought of Zinzi. “My sister would love to see you play.”

“Does she take part in soccer games?” asked Mahlodi.

“Not really,” said Ntombi. “She wanted to join a club, but my mother said it was too far away.” Ntombi remembered Zinzi’s disappointment, and felt a stab of guilt. She and her mother had never really taken Zinzi’s interest in sport seriously, she realised. When she got home she would persuade her mother to let Zinzi play.

“My family also doesn’t take my soccer seriously,” Mahlodi said. “I should be training now, not spending hours preparing for this competition. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t got this singing voice. I think my life would have been simpler.”

“Come on,” said Ntombi. “If you hadn’t entered, you wouldn’t have met me and Katrina!”

“My dad would never let me play soccer,” said Katrina. He thinks it’s just for boys. He’s so rude about Banyana.”

Mahlodi rolled her eyes and they all laughed.

At 4 p.m. Agnes called all of them into the recreation room and told them she had exciting news.

“We’re going to be interviewed on TV!” shouted the twins.

“No,” said Agnes, sounding irritated. “Something much better than that.”

“What could be …?”

But Agnes didn’t give the twins a chance. “Loyiso is coming to listen to your solos.”

There was a huge cheer.

As they rushed out to the hall, Alex touched her shoulder. “All good?” he asked. The feel of his fingers on her shoulder stirred mixed feelings in her again. She nodded and turned away.

“Oh, Loyiso,” said the twins. “I don’t know what the fuss is about. He’s always coming around to our house.”

Loyiso! thought Ntombi. How she wished she could tell Olwethu and her friends – they would die of jealousy. Loyiso! Whoever could have imagined he would listen to her sing? She started to type an SMS to share the news, but when she pressed the Send button she found she was out of airtime, and there was nowhere to buy it until tomorrow.