The bus rumbled on through the night, the woman carried on eating noisily. Ntombi tried to calm herself down. She took deep breaths, just as Mr Masondo had taught them to do before going on stage to sing. Why had Mzi congratulated her? She didn’t trust his motives. What did he mean by saying that Jozi was far from home? Did he know where she was staying? There was a threatening tone in his low, quiet voice that chilled her to the core.

She must have been lost in thought because she hadn’t noticed the bus slowing down, or the lights of the town up ahead. Suddenly the bus driver yelled something as he turned into the Engen garage to the left of the freeway.

“Where are we?” Ntombi asked the woman next to her, who was cleaning her mouth on her napkin.

“Beaufort West, sisi,” the woman said. “Time to get out and stretch your legs.”

It was a good idea. Ntombi’s legs felt stiff, as if she hadn’t walked for days. When she stepped off the bus the cold night air hit her. The sky seemed clearer here, but it was freezing. Up above her the stars were brighter than they had ever been in Cape Town. She SMSed Olwethu:

I’m in Beaufort West.

Beaufort West, a name she had heard. Her mom had been to Jozi with her dad, back when they were together and happy. She had told Ntombi and Zinzi all about their trip. “Tell us more! Don’t leave anything out!” Ntombi had said, cuddled between her parents on the bed.It had been over a year since their dad had left them.

The garage and the Engen shop lit up a pool of light in the surrounding darkness. Ntombi had just enough time to go to the toilet and buy a drink before the bus driver called them to get back in. When they had passed through the town and were on the open road again, Ntombi dozed off. But with every small movement of the person in the seat next to her she would jerk awake, remembering Mzi’s voice, low and threatening. She needed to speak to Olwethu. But he hadn’t responded to her SMS. It was the middle of the night, she told herself. He must be sleeping. But somehow she still hoped that he would answer.

By the time they reached Jozi the sun was high in the sky and it was getting hot in the bus. The aircon had gone wrong and Ntombi was sweating. She hoped she would have a chance to change before meeting all the contestants. There were so many highways into Joburg and the cars and taxis seemed to drive faster here. Everything seemed faster. The driver turned off the highway and soon they were driving through the streets of Soweto. It was like a city itself – fancy houses and big shops, then the RDP houses and shacks that could have been in her street. The woman next to her pointed out Orlando Stadium, home to Orlando Pirates. Ten minutes later they stopped at a bus depot where a taxi was waiting to take her to the hostel. The driver took her small bag and welcomed her to Joburg. “Not far,” he called to her in the back as he weaved between taxis and cars, hooting. And then they were turning into the gates of a hostel.

Outside the main building several taxis waited and there were people milling around. She saw a couple of girls running into the building, chased by a boy. They were laughing. Another girl was standing next to an enormous suitcase. Ntombi thought of her small bag. She hadn’t brought many clothes – she didn’t have many. On the bus she had been so busy thinking about Mzi and wishing Olwethu would phone she hadn’t thought much about the contestants – other than worrying that she wouldn’t match up to them. Now she was about to meet them for the first time. “The first impression is everything,” she remembered Asanda saying. She could hear her voice clearly. She wished she could sneak out to the bathroom to wash her face and straighten her clothes before anyone saw her. She suddenly felt very small and alone.

A large woman with a bright smile and an afro wig was waiting for her as she got off the taxi. “Welcome, Ntombi – you’re the last one to arrive,” she said. She shook Ntombi’s hand and gave her a file full of timetables, maps and programmes. Ntombi felt a shiver of excitement. “I’m Agnes, here to help you guys. I’ll show you your room. Most of the others have already unpacked so there won’t be much time before we all meet in the recreation room. But enough time to freshen up.” Ntombi blushed. She must look like she needed a shower and a change of clothes.

She followed Agnes down a narrow passage that smelled strongly of disinfectant, passing closed doors. At one of them Agnes stopped and knocked. “You’re sharing with someone,” she said cheerfully as she opened the door. Ntombi’s heart sank. She hadn’t thought about where she would sleep. She was terrified of sharing with fancy Joburg types who could speak English fluently, who would laugh at her accent and her clothes.

But as soon as she saw her roommate she felt a wave of relief. A girl in jeans and a plain T-shirt came forward with a huge smile and gave her a hug. “This is Mahlodi. She’s from Pretoria,” said Agnes. “I can see already that you two will get on.” Mahlodi wasn’t dressed up and she didn’t have any make-up on. She looked like someone who could be a friend.

“Welcome,” said Mahlodi. “I’m glad you’ve arrived. I was getting a bit lonely in here. Do you want me to help you unpack? I’ve saved half the cupboard space for your clothes.”

The room had two neatly made beds, one big cupboard and two desks. There was even a basin with hot and cold water in the corner. This was going to be good, thought Ntombi. Luxury! Not like at home, sharing her bed with Zinzi, and heating up water in the kitchen. She put her bag on her bed and opened it. “What I would love is to wash.”

“And to sleep, I bet,” said Mahlodi. “You must be tired, travelling all the way from Cape Town.”

Ntombi was about to reply when there was a knock at the door and two girls bounced in. Identical, gorgeous girls, looking just like the Jozi girls Ntombi was afraid of – glamorous and sophisticated, with heavy make-up and high heels. “Hi, I’m Sindiwe, and this is Lindiwe. We’re from KZN,” they said together and then laughed.

“We want to see the latest arrival,” said Lindiwe, and looked Ntombi up and down. She didn’t look impressed and Ntombi could feel her eyes picking out all the grease marks on Ntombi’s top. She wished she had had time to change. Now what would they think of her? If only she had been wearing her new dress with the strappy sandals … but it was too late for that.

Sawubona,” Ntombi said in Zulu. Her only hope now was to be friendly and to try to fit in. Sindiwe shrieked with laughter and turned to her twin.

“Sweet, she’s trying to talk Zulu to us. Don’t worry, darling, stick to English.”

“If you can speak English, that is,” said Lindiwe. “Shame, Sindiwe, maybe she’s a country girl. Don’t be cruel.”

Ntombi felt blood rush to her face. She wanted to disappear. But then she heard Mahlodi laugh at the twins. She didn’t take them seriously.

“Ignore them,” she said, looking at Ntombi’s hurt expression. Then she turned to the twins who were standing with their hands on their hips, smiling. They thought it was funny watching Ntombi stuck for words. “Haven’t you got better things to do than to come and bitch at Ntombi who has just come off a bus all the way from Cape Town? Not all of us got driven here in a BMW like you two.”

“Ag shame,” said Lindiwe, or was it Sindiwe?

“You’re so rude, Mahlodi,” said the other.

“And so like a boy, don’t you think, Sindi?” added Lindiwe. “No wonder you play soccer. You’re built perfectly for it.”

“Don’t know why you want to try singing as well,” said Sindiwe. “It will be like Caster Semenya trying to sing. Maybe you should enter as a boy. I bet your voice is rough and deep like a guy’s. Not even a voice coach will be able to fix it.” And with that the twins flounced out of the room.

“Do you play soccer?” asked Ntombi in surprise.

“Oh yes,” said Mahlodi proudly. “We have a strong girls’ team at my club.” But then for a second a shadow passed across her face. Ntombi thought she looked sad. Mahlodi sat down on her bed and looked out of the window. “I hate to say this, but the twins have a point. I didn’t want to enter this competition. I did it for all the wrong reasons. My mother is a singer. It’s all she wants me to be. I did it for her, really.”

“You must be a good singer, though,” said Ntombi, “to get into the finals.”

“I suppose so,” said Mahlodi. Then she grinned. “But I am an even better soccer player.”

Ntombi was impressed. She could see now how strong and fit Mahlodi looked. “That’s why you’ll never catch me wearing high heels,” added Mahlodi. “I like to feel like I can walk and run like a normal person. Not like those twins who look like they might fall over any minute.” Ntombi laughed. It was good to joke about Sindiwe and Lindiwe. She decided to treat them just as Mahlodi did and not to take them seriously. That way she would protect herself and not let them hurt her with their bitchy comments.

“We’ve got ten minutes until we all meet in the rec room,” said Mahlodi, looking at her watch. “Here, let me help you unpack your clothes.” It didn’t take long to fold the jeans and T-shirts and hang up her dress for the finals. Mahlodi said it looked beautiful.

“You should see how many suitcases the twins came with. They are real divas. I won’t be surprised if they change outfits at least four times a day.” She turned to the door. “Ready to face the gang?”

“Ready,” said Ntombi and took a deep breath. Mahlodi opened the door. Just then Ntombi’s cellphone beeped.

“Probably your family checking you’ve arrived safely?” said Mahlodi. Ntombi felt her body tense as she looked at the screen. She really hoped it was Olwethu, or one of her friends. Anyone but Mzi. It was Zinzi.

Hei cc u wnt blv wat hpned hre @ hme

Ntombi’s heart clenched. What did Zinzi mean?


She pressed Send. But the message came back.

Error sending message.

Damn! No airtime. Mahlodi was waiting. She would have to get airtime from somewhere. But she didn’t even know where the shops were.

“Is something up?” asked Mahlodi.

“It’s just my sister to see if I’m OK,” said Ntombi, trying to sound light-hearted.

“I have one of those, too,” said Mahlodi, and rolled her eyes. They laughed. It was going to be all right, Ntombi told herself. Probably just Zinzi trying to grab some attention because she was jealous. But as they ran down towards the rec room she hoped it wasn’t something else, something serious.