It was the day before the finals and Ntombi’s mom had arrived. She had travelled up on the bus with Zinzi. Ntombi couldn’t wait to see her and Zinzi. She wanted to find out about her dad. And she wanted to get Zinzi alone to hear the truth about Olwethu. At least now she could look her in the eye. Ntombi could always see by Zinzi’s face when she was lying.
They were waiting in the dining hall. Ntombi introduced Mahlodi to her mom and Zinzi. Her mom looked a little tired from the journey, but she was still glowing. Zinzi was overcome with shyness – or was it guilt that made her look down at her feet all the time? They got some coffee and cake and her mom said how smart everything was and how she couldn’t believe that Ntombi, her daughter, had come this far and was mixing with these famous people.
Zinzi was quiet. She hardly looked at the coffee that Ntombi had made for her.
“I’ve got so much to tell you! I just can’t …” Ntombi could see that her mom wanted to talk about their dad, but not in front of Zinzi.
Sensing the situation, Mahlodi said, “Hey, Zinzi, Ntombi tells me you’re so good at sport. I am a hot soccer player myself. I play for Pineridge Club.”
Zinzi’s face lit up. “Wow, I’ve heard of them – they’re so good,” she said.
“Do you want to come and kick a ball around the field with me?”
“I would love that,” said Zinzi. Then she looked at her mom.
“Yes, go, Zinzi, stretch your legs after that bus journey.”
Mahlodi was a good friend, Ntombi thought as she watched her and Zinzi chatting as they went out of the dining hall together. Mahlodi wanted to rescue Ntombi and give her a chance to chat to her mom, but Ntombi could see that she also wanted to make Zinzi feel better. It must be hard for her younger sister to see all the luxury she had enjoyed since she had left home. But if only she knew the confusion and hurt she had experienced too.
“Mama, have you seen Olwethu?” Ntombi asked. She had to know.
“Has Zinzi told you anything?”
“No,” said her mom. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” said Ntombi, going quiet. “Forget that I asked. Tell me about Dad. ”
“Your father is sorry, Ntombi.”
“Sorry is not good enough, Mama. Where has he been? What has he been doing all this time? Did he tell you that?”
Her mother looked across the room. Suddenly she seemed far away, as if she was remembering something in the past. Ntombi could see the pain on her face. Then she turned back to her daughter. “He didn’t want me to tell you where he’s been, Ntombi, but I think you need to know.”
“Well … was it another woman? You must tell me, Mama.”
“No,” her mother said, shaking her head.
“Well, where then?”
“He was in prison.”
“What?” Ntombi stared at her mom. “I don’t believe you!”
“Why would I lie?” her mom said softly, taking her hand. “I know it’s a shock, my girl. It’s such a long story.”
“You believed it?”
Her mother frowned. “Remember, Ntombi, this is your father. This isn’t Zakes …”
She was right. They were opposites, her dad and Zakes.
“Ntombi, he was tricked by a colleague at work. This man did something wrong at work. But he didn’t want to take the blame. So he set your father up so that it looked like your father had done it, not him, and forged his signature. And then your dad couldn’t face telling us that he was behind bars – it was the shame of it, and knowing the pain it would cause us.”
“And so he just disappeared. Didn’t he think that that would be painful?”
“It was a terrible decision. I’m not saying that he made the right choice, but he did it for the right reasons. He wanted to protect us.”
Ntombi couldn’t believe it.
“He was released the day you left. That’s when he left the letter at my work. It was the first thing he did. He had written it in prison. He is so sorry.”
“That’s not good enough,” said Ntombi with tears in her eyes.
“I know,” said her mother. “It’s complicated. But he loves you very much. He really wants to see you.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” said Ntombi.
Out on the field Mahlodi kicked the ball to Zinzi. Then they dribbled the ball around. Zinzi couldn’t believe how green and thick the grass was – not like playing soccer in the street where she got scrapes and bruises.
“Now I’ll go into the goal,” said Mahlodi. “See if you can score.”
The first time Mahlodi blocked the ball – no problem. But on the third shot Zinzi hit the back of the net and whooped with joy.
“Hey, girl!” Mahlodi called, than ran up and gave her a high-five. “You’re really good.”
“Do you think so?” asked Zinzi shyly. “Really?”
“Really. You should join a team.”
Zinzi’s face fell. “I tried. My mother said it was too far to go to the games.”
The girls started walking back to the building. “It must be difficult for you – Ntombi coming to the finals and everything,” Mahlodi said gently. She felt she had to coax the truth out of Zinzi – that way it would be better for her and Ntombi.
At first Zinzi looked suspicious. What had Ntombi been saying to her? But it had been such fun playing with Mahlodi, and she wanted to talk to someone. “It is,” she admitted. “It’s just that she’s so good at everything. And she gets all the attention. My mother isn’t interested in my sport. And she thinks I’m still a little girl. She still hasn’t told me the full story about my father coming back, and I know that’s exactly what she’s telling Ntombi now. I’m sick of being left out!”
Mahlodi patted her on the back. “I know what you mean. I have an older brother who got straight As. When my teachers handed back my tests they would say, ‘Why can’t you be like your brother?’ My skills on the soccer field didn’t impress my parents at all. It was only when I started singing that they took more notice of me. They were so pleased that I was doing something else, something more feminine.”
Zinzi looked up at her and smiled.
“Talk to Ntombi about joining a club,” Mahlodi continued. “I think she’s on your side. And she’s proud of you, you know.”
“She shouldn’t be,” said Zinzi, thinking of what she had done. But Mahlodi hadn’t heard. A group of boys was walking past. They teased Mahlodi and waved. Zinzi smiled shyly when they asked who the “pretty girl” was. She was feeling much better. Suddenly in the limelight herself.
“We all have different strengths. You’ve got to discover what you’re good at and stick at it,” said Mahlodi as they entered the building.
“Practise, practise, practise,” laughed Zinzi. “That’s what our coaches are always saying.”
“And they’re right,” said Mahlodi, “Now, come on. Let’s go and tell your mom and Ntombi the good news – how they’ve got a soccer star in the making.”
When they got back inside the hall there wasn’t much time to talk about anything as Agnes came in to call the contestants to the rec room for some final instructions. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’m so proud of you, Ntombi.” Ntombi’s mom gave her a big hug. Zinzi hugged them both.
“Zinzi’s got real talent,” Mahlodi called after Ntombi’s mom as she and Zinzi were leaving.Her mom turned and waved back at them.
“I know. I’m so proud of her too,” she said, squeezing Zinzi’s hand. Mahlodi and Ntombi could see the big smile on Zinzi’s face.
“Thank you, Mahlodi,” said Ntombi as they followed Agnes down the corridor to the rec room. “For talking to Zinzi, I mean. I could see it meant a lot to her.”
“She’s really good, you know. I’m just sad you didn’t get a chance to talk to her yourself. I got the feeling there was something she needed to say to you.”
As they went into the rec room Zinzi ran up behind Mahlodi and pulled her back for a moment.
“Can I talk to you?” she asked. “But I don’t want my mom and Ntombi to hear what I’m going to say.”
“Sure. What is it?”
“I think I’ve done something bad,” said Zinzi softly. But before Mahlodi could answer Agnes came out into the corridor and told her that she should come inside for important last-minute tips for the finals.
“I’ll see you tomorrow night before the finals,” was all Mahlodi could say to Zinzi. “You can tell me then.”
“It might be too late,” thought Zinzi as the door closed and she was separated from Mahlodi and Ntombi.