It was the big day at last. But all Ntombi could think of was how Olwethu hadn’t called her to wish her luck. She was so nervous as she went to join the other contestants backstage in the dressing-rooms, where hairstylists and make-up artists were waiting to make them look their best. The organisers were also rushing around frantically, checking that everything was in order.

In the corridor outside the dressing rooms Ntombi bumped into Alex.

“Good luck, Ntombi,” he said softly. “And if I don’t win, my next choice would be you! I’m serious.”

Ntombi tried to smile. “Who else have you told that to?”

“Ouch,” said Alex. “I’m not that bad, am I? Really, I’m sorry, girl. You still have a place in my heart.”

“I feel sorry for your girlfriend,” Ntombi replied. But when he stretched out his hand, she took it.

“Peace?” he asked.

“Peace,” she replied. And then she had to go inside, the stylists were calling her to hurry up, if she was to get done in time.

The twins had taken over a huge section of the dressing room and their bouquets of flowers were making everyone sneeze. The organisers had already had to chase out the private coaches and hairstylists their father had sent. A big man in a pin-striped suit came barging in. It was the twins’ father. Some girls were half-dressed and screeched at the intrusion. However, he had no eyes for them – he went straight over to the twins and started talking to them urgently, waving his fat hands, until an organiser came to usher him out.

The boys were in a separate dressing room. The next time the girls saw them would be on stage in front of thousands of people. This was so much bigger than the regional finals in the school hall. There were press representatives and photographers and talent scouts. At the regionals Ntombi knew half the people in the hall – her community had come out to support her. But this was different. There were a whole lot of strangers out there and they didn’t care about her. All they wanted to hear was her voice. She suddenly panicked – was she under-dressed? Some of the girls looked like it was their wedding day.

“That’s part of what makes you stand out,” said Mahlodi, who was also wearing a very simple dress and black pumps on her feet.

And then a face peered around the door, nervously. It was Zinzi.

“Hey, only contestants allowed in here,” said an organiser.

“Please, it’s just my little sister,” said Ntombi. “Come in, Zinzi.”

Her sister was holding a parcel and a small bunch of flowers she had picked.

“I wanted to give you these,” she said. “The parcel is from Dad, the flowers are from me.”

“Thanks, sisi.” Ntombi gave her a hug.

Zinzi hovered around. “There’s something I need to tell you,” she whispered, and looked at Mahlodi, who nodded.

“What is it? I haven’t got much time. We’re on in 20 minutes.”

“Say you’ll forgive me?” said Zinzi.

“What is it? What have you done?” But she had guessed already; she had suspected for a long time.

“It’s … well, you know when I phoned you and said Olwethu had a girlfriend?”

“Yes …”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly his girlfriend.”

Ntombi waited.

“It was his cousin.”

“You lied to me, Zinzi.” Ntombi said slowly.

Zinzi looked at her feet. “I … I was jealous, I guess … jealous that you were in this competition. That you were in Jozi and I wasn’t.”

“Olwethu must think I’m a bitch,” said Ntombi. “What did you tell him?”

“I told him that I heard you with another boy and there was music.”

“You told him that I had a new boyfriend?”

“Not exactly.”

Ntombi thought of the messages she had deleted, the times she hadn’t called him. What would he think? The silence would mean only one thing to him – that she was guilty, that she was with her new boyfriend.

And then she thought of something worse. He wouldn’t love her any more after this. Maybe it was too late. Maybe she had driven him away and he was with another girl. Why not? Who would want to go out with someone who at the first opportunity started chasing another boy? That’s why he had stopped phoning her, why he had put the phone down on her call.

“You have to phone Olwethu,” Ntombi said urgently. “You have to phone him now and explain everything.”

“What if he’s angry with me?”

“Zinzi, of course he’ll be angry with you. But you have to take responsibility and do this, or you’ll never forgive yourself.”

Just then the coach came in to tell them it was ten minutes until they had to go on stage. First they were singing a song as a group, then performing their solos and finally their duets.

“You have to go, Zinzi.”

Zinzi gave her sister a hug. She was crying. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I really am.”

“You shouldn’t be jealous of me,” Ntombi said. “Mahlodi says she has never met anyone so young who is such a fast learner at soccer. She thinks you have a real future.”

“She does?” Zinzi’s eyes lit up.

“I really do,” said Mahlodi from the next chair in front of the long mirror.

“Good luck,” said Zinzi. “We’ll be the ones with the big placard saying ‘GO, NTOMBI!’.”

“Oh no,” said Ntombi. “That’s all I need.”

Five minutes, the coach said. Just enough time.

She had to try phoning Olwethu herself. She dialled the number with trembling fingers.

“The subscriber you have dialled is not available. Please try again later.”

“It’s time!” shouted an organiser.

They walked onto the stage with their heads held high, looking more confident than they felt inside.