The rec room was buzzing with the contestants’ excited chatter as the competition organisers pinned up schedules on the notice board. In the far corner cooldrinks, snacks and cake were laid out on a trestle table. And there were the twins drinking Coke Zeros and looking everyone up and down to see what they were wearing. “I’m going to get myself a juice. Do you want one?” asked Mahlodi.

“Look at the choice of drinks!” Ntombi couldn’t believe how much food and cooldrinks there were. “It looks like a shop! And there are three kinds of cake to choose from!”

Mahlodi laughed. “You’d better get used to it, girlfriend.”

“I think I’m going to enjoy it!” The drink tasted so good after the long, hot journey on the bus. Finally, Ntombi felt like she had stopped travelling and could take in her surroundings. She looked around the rec room. The twins were talking at the tops of their voices and laughing too loudly with a man at least a foot shorter than them. A plump young girl with light brown skin was leaning against the wall, looking at everybody, her dark hair elegantly swept back up on her head. “I bet you that girl sings alto,” whispered Mahlodi. And I bet she sings well, thought Ntombi nervously.

“Shame, I heard she has to share a room with one of the twins. They split them up, you know,” said Mahlodi. And Ntombi felt very sorry for the girl and very glad she was with Mahlodi. Things could have been much worse.

In the doorway two younger boys were shaking hands. They looked so formal it made Ntombi and Mahlodi giggle. One of them was dressed like a nerd: shirt tucked in, clean white shoes. The other was wearing a suit. “Two professors,” Mahlodi teased. “Definitely gospel singers!” A third guy joined them and made a sign with his hand to greet them. He had a hoody hiding most of his face, and he wore his pants so low you could see his underpants. “That’s the rapper guy, Katlego,” said Mahlodi. “Too cool for school.” Behind him was a tall girl with long blonde hair and very long legs. “And look at that blonde stick insect, trying to get his attention,” Mahlodi added. Ntombi laughed.

“Bet you she’s got a squeaky soprano voice,” she answered.

They heard a shout from across the room and then a roar of laughter. Ntombi turned to look what was happening and saw a white boy with a blond fringe wrestling with another contestant on one of the big beanbags.

“Boys!” Mahlodi said. “They never grow up.”

The white boy stood up and offered his friend a hand. Ntombi couldn’t help staring. The friend was one of the most gorgeous boys she had ever seen. His skin was smooth and the colour of dark toffee. And what a cute smile! Just then he turned to look at her watching him, and winked. She was embarrassed he had caught her out. And now he was walking towards her and she couldn’t escape. She turned to find Mahlodi, but her new friend was talking to the nerd over in the corner. Then he was at her side and even more handsome close up.

“I’ve met everyone else,” he said. “Where have you been hiding? You must be the girl from the Beautiful City. Welcome to the big lights of Jozi.” He smiled that killer smile again, and she found she had lost her voice. “Sorry there’s no mountain here for you. But hopefully you will find some other attractions.” He held out his hand. “By the way, I’m Alex, from Alex.”

“I’m Ntombi,” Ntombi whispered, as they shook hands. He held her hand a little too long.

Then Alex’s friend came up and greeted Ntombi too. “Ah, Alex from Alex, he does love that line. And yeah … he thinks he’s the next teen voice,” he said, slapping Alex on the back.

“This is Dirk,” said Alex. “My bodyguard. He’s always right behind me. Thinks I’ll get up to trouble if he leaves me alone for two seconds. And he might be right.” He laughed. Then when he saw the alarm on Ntombi’s face he added, “Don’t worry, he’s my good buddy. We’re in the same band.”

“Or were,” said Dirk, “until this competition. Now it’s a fight to the death!” They laughed and gave each other a high-five. Ntombi couldn’t believe how cool they were – and in a band! She didn’t know anyone in a band, only in the church choir at home.

Mahlodi came up and whispered to Ntombi, “Check out the twins.” Ntombi saw them talking to an older man in the corner. They looked like they were flirting with him, the way they moved and giggled. “They’re not stupid. That guy is the assistant to the judges. Look at them charming the pants off him.’

Dirk flicked back his fringe. “I wouldn’t mind them charming the pants off me. They are absolutely beautiful. Model material. You have to introduce me.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Alex.

“Yeh, shut up,” added Mahlodi. “If that’s your taste in girls I feel sorry for you.” And they spent the next five minutes joking around together. In the excitement of meeting these guys Ntombi had forgotten all about the SMS from Zinzi. But then she felt her phone ringing in her jeans’ pocket.

“Hey, somebody’s bum is singing,” said Dirk.

“I think it’s you,” Mahlodi said. Ntombi took the phone out, embarrassed. “I’ll be back,” she said quickly.

“Boyfriends. They won’t leave you alone. I bet he’s checking up on her,” Alex teased, calling after her. But it wasn’t Olwethu, it was her mother.

“Mama, what’s happening?” she said quietly into the phone, bracing herself for what she was about to hear.

“Hello, my darling …”

“Mama, Zinzi said that something had happened.”

“I didn’t want Zinzi to worry you. It’s nothing, my girl.”

“So what did she mean?” Ntombi looked around. The organisers were calling the contestants together to tell them about the programme. She was about to miss it. She didn’t have time now.

“It’s your father …,” said her mom.

Ntombi froze. “What about him?”

“He’s come back.”

“Come ba …. What? I don’t believe it!” Ntombi blurted out. Everyone turned around to look at her. She waved weakly, then lowered her voice. “Is he at home?”

“No, no, not like that. I mean he’s back in town. He’s sent me a letter, Ntombi, explaining everything.”

“But what did he say, Mama? You haven’t forgiven him have you?” It was the worst time to hear the news. She didn’t have time to talk to her mother, to remind her that he shouldn’t be allowed to just walk back into their lives after what he had done.

“Mama, I can’t talk now. I have to go. Please phone me later.”

“OK, my girl.” She paused. “But, Ntombi, it’s a long and complicated story. I didn’t want Zinzi to tell you anything. Just enjoy yourself, sweetie. Don’t miss out on the fun.” And with that her mother put down the phone.

Ntombi joined the others and Mahlodi told her that Agnes had said they were to meet in the rec room at 7 the next morning and to wear something comfortable. “Of course that doesn’t apply to the twins,” added Mahlodi. “Unless they’ve found designer tracksuits.”

Alex caught up with Ntombi as she was leaving the rec room. He touched her on the arm. “Everything all right?” he asked.

“Fine, fine,” she answered uncertainly.

“Stay,” he said. “Looks like you need some energy. Come and have some cake with me.” He steered her towards the table and piled up a paper plate with cake and biscuits.

“You look hungry!” she laughed.

“It’s not for me – it’s for you,” he said with a grin. “It would be sad to see all this food wasted.”

“I can’t eat that much!” she laughed. She took one of the biscuits and sat down next to Alex who was already halfway through a big slice of chocolate cake. Just then one of the twins walked past.

“I can see you’re not watching your weight.” She wagged a painted nail at Ntombi. “You’d better watch out. You know it’s not just your voice the judges will be judging.”

“If it were about personalities you would come last,” Alex said to her, laughing as the twin tossed her head and walked away. “So,” he turned to Ntombi and looked right into her eyes like he was searching for something. “Hope there wasn’t bad news from home?”

Ntombi shook her head. “No, no – everything’s fine.” She found it hard to believe that he cared. After all, he hardly knew her. But he sounded really concerned and made her feel like he was really listening, as though there was nothing else in the room that interested him. His full lips and warm eyes were very close. Such a gorgeous guy, caring about her! “My mother was just giving me some news. But nothing serious.”

“That’s good,” he said. He leaned back and stretched his arm across the back of her seat. She knew that if she leaned back too his arm would be around her.

Her emotions swirled like a flooded river. Alex here, Olwethu far away, her father back in town. She leaned back and felt Alex’s arm against her neck and shoulders. The warmth of his arm sent her worries away, and brought in a whole new set of feelings. For a moment they just sat there, not moving.

It seemed as if time had stopped. But then Agnes walked over to them and Ntombi realised they were the only ones left in the rec room. “OK, guys, we’re locking up here now,” she said. “It’s time to go back to your rooms.” Ntombi got up quickly and walked towards the door. She didn’t look back at Alex. She was embarrassed to have been caught chatting to him alone when she had only just arrived. What would Agnes think? She would have to be careful the next day. She would stick with Mahlodi, she told herself. And there was Mahlodi waiting for her in the passage with a knowing smile on her face.

“Alex from Alex is quite a charmer,” she said. Ntombi tried to change the subject. She didn’t want Mahlodi to think she was like the twins, flirting at the first opportunity.

“This place will be good for my English,” she said, as if she hadn’t heard Mahlodi’s comment. “I’m not used to everyone speaking different languages like they do here in Jozi.”

“Looks like you and Alex were getting to know each other,” Mahlodi winked. “He’s pretty hot, don’t you think? And I think he rather likes you too.”

Ntombi felt her heart jump. “You’re joking!” It came out too loud and squeaky and Ntombi worried that she had given her feelings away. But then again she wasn’t even sure what her feelings were.

“I can tell these things,” Mahlodi laughed. She unlocked their door and they collapsed on their beds. It felt so good to be able to lie down. “Yes,” Mahlodi joked. “Alex from Alex speaks the language of love. It’s spoken all over the world, you know.”

“I’m not interested,” said Ntombi, trying to convince herself. “I’ve got a boyfriend at home.”

“But is he as hot as Alex from Alex? That is the question!”

Ntombi thought of Olwethu’s familiar face – his smile, the kindness in his eyes and how he loved her. But then she remembered Alex’s sexy smile and wink and how it had felt when they had sat so close. It disturbed her how quickly thoughts of Olwethu had faded and how strongly she was attracted to this guy she had only just met. Perhaps it was tiredness and excitement after the long journey. She wasn’t thinking clearly.

Mahlodi put on her earphones and started reading a magazine with a picture of a soccer player on the cover. Ntombi took out her diary. She had promised herself that she would record everything so that she would never forget this amazing experience. But now the empty page made her feel guilty. What would she write about? Why did she want to write Alex’s name just to see what it looked like? She closed the book quickly. This was ridiculous. She needed to pull herself together and remember why she was here. She needed to remember why she loved Olwethu. And then, as if he knew she was thinking about him, her phone lit up.

“Hello, baby.” Ntombi smiled at the familiar sound of his voice. It was like he was suddenly there in the room with her. What had she been thinking?

“I’m missing you,” she said softly, and realised that it was true. Talking to Alex had been exciting, but unnerving too. “It’s so strange here.”

“Meet some nice people?” he asked.

“I’ve got such a great roommate,” she said, looking at Mahlodi, who didn’t even look up as she listened to her music. “Her name is Mahlodi and she’s a soccer player.” And then she told him about the twins, the nerdy boy and the rapper.

“I’ll phone you tomorrow night after rehearsals,” she promised him.

“I love you,” he said.

“Love you too.”

Later Ntombi lay in the dark feeling guilty. Why had she not told Olwethu about Alex? She had told him about the other contestants. And why hadn’t she told him about her dad either? Maybe it was just too much to take in. She needed to think. Yes, she must put Alex out of her mind. She needed to talk to her mother again. She just knew her mother would be weak, and let her father in without a second thought. She would have to stop her. But what could she do? She was so far away.

The bed felt strange, and it was lonely without Zinzi next to her. Outside the sound of sirens made her jump and she looked over at Mahlodi for reassurance, but she was fast asleep. Voices echoed down the corridor – two people laughing – and then their footsteps faded into the distance. There was silence. She felt like a fish far away from the sea, with no oxygen to breathe. But then she remembered how Alex had teased her, told her to chill. The memory made her smile.