The lights were dazzling – Ntombi couldn’t see anything. She couldn’t hear anything either as her heart was pounding too loudly. She must have stood like a rabbit in the headlights for a moment, until Alex took her hand and led her on with the rest of the contestants. The light bulbs flashed as the presenter introduced them. Their faces came up on a big screen. There, larger than life, was Ntombi – “our lovely Cape Town contestant – give her a round of applause …”

There was a scream from the audience. It could only be Zinzi, Ntombi thought and then through the lights she saw the banner waving.

She could just make out someone else standing next to her mom – it looked like a guy – but then the lights dazzled her again.

They sang the group song Right Now to wild cheers from the audience, each contestant singing a different verse of the lyrics. People were watching this on their TVs all over the country. A million viewers! The panel of judges sat in front of the stage.

Then it was time for the solos. There was a hush in the audience as Ntombi stepped forward to the microphone. At first it was terrifying, knowing that beyond the lights there were people and cameras everywhere. But as she sang her first notes she forgot everything. Everything, that is, apart from one special wish – that the song would express a love she could believe in, something deep and lasting.

When she had finished there was a moment’s silence. Then the crowd went wild, shouting and clapping.

In a daze she watched the others from the wings. Mahlodi sang beautifully, but you could feel somehow that her heart was elsewhere. The crowd could sense it too, as their clapping seemed polite, not as wholehearted as it had been for Ntombi.

Next came the twins. They had been allowed to compete as one contestant, and they looked like robots as they smiled, danced and sang together. Wild cheering came from a corner of the audience, but otherwise they did not receive huge applause.

She was about to watch Katrina when one of the backstage staff shooed her away. “Go and get ready for the duets,” he hissed. The duet with Alex! How would she manage? Could they pull it off after everything that had happened, and would it be as good as that first time they had sung together?

“Hold hands,” said the organiser as he pushed them into the light. The crowd cheered to see one of their favourites back on stage. And then the familiar music began. Ntombi closed her eyes as their voices interwove. But it was not the same. The magic had disappeared. They sang brilliantly, beautifully. They even managed to smile at each other, but the passion had gone. They were merely performers.

There wasn’t the same stunned silence that she had noticed after her solo, but still the crowd cheered enthusiastically. She and Alex bowed and waved, and as the lights roved across the audience, she tried again to see who was with her mother and Zinzi.

For a moment before she was ushered back to her dressing room she listened to Andile and Katrina singing their duet. She had never heard them practise together, and she was amazed. The rapper had a pure tenor voice that expressed a yearning and beauty she hadn’t heard in his angry rap solo. Now his voice was climbing, falling, dancing with Katrina’s alto. They were brilliant! There was no way she could win, she told herself.

Finally it was nearly over. All the contestants were called back on-stage to wait for the results. The cameras lingered on each nervous face as everyone waited for the judges’ announcement.

A beautiful woman in a long red dress came to the microphone with a piece of paper. Ntombi could barely hear what she was saying. All she was waiting for was the name of the contestant awarded first place.

“Third place goes to Katrina Abrahams.”

The crowd roared.

“Second place to … Ntombi Gasa.”

Ntombi felt a surge of disappointment. She struggled to hold her smile for the cameras and searched the crowd for a familiar face, trying to see how her mother and Zinzi were taking it. Were they disappointed? Or happy that she had come in the top three? There were her mom and Zinzi waving like mad. And who was that beside them, standing and clapping? Surely it couldn’t be … No!

But it was. She would never mistake that face! Olwethu blew her a kiss. He had come all the way to see her.

Just like last time, he remained standing, clapping loudly, until everyone else had sat down. Soon everyone was looking at him and telling him to shut up because they were waiting to hear who came first.

Ntombi’s heart was overflowing with happiness. She had come second, but Olwethu was here. He loved her still.

“And, finally, our winner in the Teen Voice Competition of South Africa is …” The woman paused, and the hall went dead quiet. “Andile Mpuru!”

He deserved it, thought Ntombi. He was brilliant. And he really needed the money. Now his brother could go to school. The cameras had already found his supporters. They were hoisting a young boy onto their shoulders, a young boy who was waving at the winner who was waving back at him.

And then the lights moved to where her supporters were standing. There was Olwethu again, up on the big screen, blowing kisses to her. She had come second, but this was the best prize she could have imagined.