Ntombi felt cold. She was on stage, but instead of wearing a beautiful dress she was in skimpy pyjamas. She wanted to run, but she was glued to the floor. And now she had to sing. She opened her mouth, but all that came out was a strange scratching sound. It was getting louder and louder. She realised that she had been dreaming, and that the noise wasn’t coming from her. It was something in their room. The scratching stopped for a second and she thought she heard someone breathing. Slowly she turned over in bed. It was still dark but she saw someone at her bedside table busy with her phone. What was Mahlodi doing? Ntombi had trusted her and now she was looking through her phone. But then she saw that Mahlodi was still asleep. This was someone else looking at her messages.
“Hey! What are you doing?” she said. The girl spun around and Ntombi saw that it was one of the twins. She had been caught red-handed. It didn’t seem to bother her. She put the phone back on the table as cool as anything.
“Morning, sleepy head,” she said in a syrupy tone, the friendliest voice she had ever used for Ntombi. “I came to wake you up for breakfast and just couldn’t help seeing the pics on your phone. Who’s the cute guy? And is that pretty little thing your sister?”
Has she no shame, thought Ntombi? She couldn’t see the twin’s expression clearly. Was that guilt, or just another fake smile? The last thing Ntombi needed was her spreading rumours amongst the other contestants. There was no saying what damage the twins could do. She would keep her cell close to her from now on.
“The cute guy is my boyfriend. And, yes, that’s my little sister,” she said. It was always better to tell the truth – she had learned that the hard way.
“Oh well, as I said, it’s time for breakfast. You’d better get up or you won’t get a chance to put on your make-up,” she said, even though she must have known that Ntombi didn’t wear any. She walked out of the room and shut the door.
Ntombi looked at the time. It was only 6.45 a.m., and breakfast was at 7.15 a.m. Liar, she thought. Lindiwe (or was it Sindiwe?) was up to no good. But she was awake now and she needed to shower and get ready for the day. Mahlodi had heard the door close and she was sitting up in bed. “Was that who I think it was?” she said, her voice thick from sleep.
“It was one of the twins … and she was looking at the pics on my phone. She sneaked in here.”
“I can’t believe those two. We’ll have to keep the door locked. I don’t know what they want.”
As Ntombi opened the door to go and shower Mahlodi said, teasingly, “For a second I thought it might be Alex – that he had come to wake you up, personally.”
Ntombi felt her face flush with embarrassment. “You’re crazy,” she said.
“Just a thought.”
“Anyway, I don’t care about him. I have a boyfriend.”
Mahlodi laughed. “Just teasing, girl. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to someone. Doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it.”
Ntombi thought about Mahlodi’s words as she stood in the shower, feeling the jet of hot water on her face, then, as she turned, on her shoulders and down her back. It was like a water massage all over her body. She could stay in there all day, she thought. But after a few minutes the water started to feel lukewarm, and then suddenly it was icy cold. Shivering, she wrapped herself in her towel and stepped out into the bathroom. There were Sindiwe and Lindiwe in matching pink bathrobes and slippers. “Hey, what’s happened to the hot water?” Ntombi asked.
“Oh, sorry, girlie,” one of them said. “We are used to very long showers in the morning. Hope we didn’t use all the hot water in the geyser.”
“By the way,” said the other, “looks like you might need to go back in the shower. There’s soap all over you still.” Ntombi looked down. They were right. In the shower she cursed them as she slapped the soap off her body under the ice-cold water. She rushed back to her room, gasping with cold. “I bet those girls used up all the hot water on purpose,” said Mahlodi crossly. “They will do anything to make our lives more difficult.”
Agnes was waiting for them at the dining-room door. She was checking their names off on a list. Ntombi noticed that Alex wasn’t there yet. Probably fast asleep still. But then she was sure he could charm Agnes with that cute smile. She wondered if she should keep some breakfast for him, then checked herself. How foolish she was being!
Agnes was about to tick Ntombi’s name off when a delivery man walked towards them. He could hardly see over the bunches of pink roses in his arms.
“What’s this?” Agnes asked him. But before he could answer Ntombi felt herself shoved and pushed from behind as the twins forced her aside.
They were already dressed in designer outfits and wore thick make-up. Lindiwe grabbed the flowers and screeched with excitement. “Oh, they’re from Daddy, isn’t he fabulous!” Sindiwe read out the card: “Good luck, darlings – I know you can do it. Show them the Mkhize way. Love Dad.”
“So sweet,” said Lindiwe.
“You can go now,” said Agnes, ticking their names off on the list. But the twins weren’t going to let anyone forget their gift.
“Daddy is just so behind us,” said Sindiwe. “We had a special singing coach that cost a fortune. And Daddy tried to get the coach to work with us this week. But they wouldn’t let us bring him. So unfair.”
“And Daddy wanted us to stay in a proper hotel, not this dump. But we weren’t allowed to do that either,” said the other twin.
Ntombi thought of her own father, and felt a stab of jealousy. Her dad probably didn’t even know about the Teen Voice Competition, or that she was here in Jozi. Not unless her mom had told him. He hadn’t sent any flowers for her. In fact the last time she remembered getting a present from him was at her twelfth birthday.
“Hey, you there in the kitchen,” Lindiwe shouted at a woman who was setting out breakfast cereals. “Hurry up and get us some vases. We can’t hold these roses all day, you know.” She thrust the roses into her arms.
“No proper service here,” she said to the other twin who nodded in agreement. Ntombi saw the woman’s face, and jumped up to help her. She didn’t want the woman to think they were all spoilt brats.
After breakfast they gathered in the hall. Alex still hadn’t showed up and Ntombi kept looking at the door. Agnes was standing on the stage with a man wearing a leather jacket and jeans. Between them on a small table were two black boxes.
“Now for the magic show,” joked Mahlodi. “What do you think they’ve got in there? A rabbit?”
“You two are so simple,” said Lindiwe. “Don’t you know anything?”
“She thinks we’re serious,” Mahlodi laughed. But Ntombi was only half concentrating. When she heard a flurry behind her she was relieved to see Alex and Dirk skidding across the floor. They stopped just behind her and Mahlodi, out of breath. Agnes looked down at them. She wasn’t impressed. Ntombi quickly turned to look at the stage but not before Alex had caught her eye to wink. Calm down, she told herself. He is attractive, but you heard Mahlodi – you don’t have to do anything about it.
Then Agnes introduced the man beside her. He was a musician who was going to be one of their coaches during the week. “It’s Steve Dyer,” said Dirk behind Ntombi. “Can you believe it?” Ntombi felt stupid because she hadn’t heard of him. She wondered again if she was out of her depth. What would happen when he heard her sing? With Mr Masondo it was different – she had grown up singing in the choir and he had coached them for years. This was scary.
“I’d like to welcome you all to rehearsals,” the man was saying. “You are going to have to work really hard this week to stay in the competition – and it will pay off. But if you are slack … well, then you are not going to make it. And remember, whether you win or lose, this could change your life.” Ntombi’s eyes kept going back to the black boxes.
“You may be wondering what I’ve got inside here.” The man tapped one of the boxes. “Every one of your names is in this box. And in this one,” he tapped the second one, “are the names of some famous duets. You are going to work together with your partner until they are perfectly performed, if it takes all day and all night. Right! Now who’s going to start?”
“Me … me!” shouted the twins, jumping up and down.
“Eish, you need sunglasses just to look at them” said Mahlodi under her breath to Ntombi.
The coach ignored them and turned to Katrina, the beautiful girl who Ntombi had thought would be an alto. Katrina came up to the front. She looks so calm and confident, thought Ntombi enviously.
“OK, Katrina, put your hand in this box and choose a partner. The one you choose will be the person you sing with in the duet section of the finals.”
Katrina put her hand in the box, took out a paper, and handed it to the presenter. He opened it up. “A is for …”
Ntombi felt a wave of relief. Katrina had Alex. Ntombi did not want to be partnered with him.
But then the coach said, “A is for Andile!”
Andile loped up to the stage, his hoody still hiding most of his face. But he bowed and smiled as everyone cheered, and gave Katrina a quick hug. Then he dipped his hand into the second box and unfolded the piece of paper.
“So in love.” He rolled his eyes.
“It will be interesting, Andile. Quite a challenge for you,” said the coach. “I hear you are a rapper? You will have to prove to us that you can sing other styles too.”
“With Katrina I’m sure anything’s possible,” said Andile coolly, making the contestants laugh.
“A rapper and a joker,” said the coach wryly. Katrina and Andile left the stage to go and start rehearsing. Who would be next?
“It’s our turn now, come on!” the twins were protesting.
The presenter ignored them and pointed at Ntombi. “Up you come.”
Ntombi felt everyone staring at her as she walked across the stage to the box. She prayed she would get Mahlodi. She had sung such good duets with her girlfriends back home. There was no awkwardness with girls. And if it couldn’t be a girl, even the nerd would be OK. Just please, let it not be Alex, she prayed. She could feel him watching her.
She put her hand in and drew out the piece of paper. Suddenly the hall seemed very quiet. When she saw the name on the paper, her first instinct was to put it back immediately and choose another, but everyone was staring. “Well,” said the coach, “aren’t you going to tell us who it is?”
“Yes,” said Alex. “Who’s the lucky guy … or girl?” Ntombi couldn’t look at him.
“It’s Alex,” she said to the coach. A whistle went up from the floor. And a “Yes!” like Alex had scored a goal.
“Ah, yes, Alex,” said the coach. “Alex from Alex. Come forward …” But Alex was already at Ntombi’s side and had his hand in the second box.
“My endless love,” he read out. “Perfect,” he said, smiling at Ntombi. “It’s our lucky day.”
Oh, great, thought Ntombi, groaning inside. They’d be promising each other eternal love. She remembered the words of the song very clearly.
“You two can practise in Room 2 down the corridor on the left. One of the coaches will be there to guide you through rehearsals.”
Ntombi couldn’t look at Alex as they walked down to their rehearsal room. But as she put her hand on the door handle his hand covered hers and they opened it together. It could have been by chance, their reaching for the handle at the same time. But Ntombi didn’t think so when she saw the cheeky smile on Alex’s face. At least they wouldn’t be alone. The coach would keep him in line. But when they went inside the room was empty.
“The coach isn’t here yet,” she said quickly. “Maybe we should wait outside.”
But Alex was already looking around the room, turning knobs on the sound system attached to a computer and running his fingers over the keys of a small piano. Ntombi hung back at the door.
“Just the two of us,” sang Alex. “So. Shall we do it?” He smiled at her and she couldn’t help smiling back.
“We can’t sing together if you stay in the doorway,” he said. “I promise I don’t bite.” He smiled at her. “Although you look like you might taste rather nice.”
“Have you found the song?” She tried to sound business-like. Focus on the task at hand, she told her herself. She picked up some music sheets on top of the piano and tried to hide her hot face from Alex.
“It’s all business with you. Never mind,” he said, pressing a button on the computer, “we can chat later tonight. They’re taking us out to supper at a big mall in town.”
This was the first she had heard of it. She was excited and nervous all at once. But there was no chance for questions – the music had started. The singer’s voice was so beautiful, thought Ntombi. Imagine singing like that one day. Alex started humming and then singing along. Ntombi stared at him. He had an amazing voice.
“You thought I couldn’t sing?” he teased. “Aren’t you going to join me?”
What if she ruined it? But he was waiting and any minute the coach would come in. It was better that she should warm up now. She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. Then she started to sing.
Soon she was lost in the beautiful melody. Their voices melted together, weaving up and down in perfect harmony. She had never sung like this with anyone before. She didn’t know it was possible. When they had finished they just stood and looked at each other. “Wow,” said Alex. They were lost for words. Then they heard the clapping behind them.
They turned around. Their coach had come in without them knowing.
The session was tiring. Mr Masondo had never worried quite this much about every phrase, every line of melody, being perfect. “You have to make this song your own,” the coach told them. You’ll need to practise on your own again before the final.”
Ntombi was relieved to get out of the room and clear her head. “Later!” Alex called after her, as she made her way back to the rec room for a break and to find Mahlodi. She hardly saw Alex for the rest of the day. At lunch she positioned herself between Mahlodi and Katrina. Katrina was telling them how her roommate Lindiwe had taken up all the space in the cupboard, so that she had to keep her own clothes in her suitcase. “And since she’s discovered I’m from a small town in the Eastern Cape, the bitchiness hasn’t stopped.”
“You shouldn’t let her bully you,” said Mahlodi.
“It must be a nightmare,” said Ntombi. “If you ever want to escape, come and chat to us in our room.”
“I might need to,” said Katrina. Ntombi thought how much her friends would like to meet Katrina and Mahlodi and she wished they were here now.
In the afternoon they practised their solos with a coach and when she finally made it back to their room, Mahlodi was already getting changed.
“Come on, girl. We’re going out.”
Ntombi felt like resting. But in Jozi there was no time to chill. “The taxi’s coming to fetch us in 15 minutes to take us to the mall.”
There was just time to pull on her jeans and a smart top and put on her new pumps. And then they were getting into the taxi. It was only as they sped off into the Jozi traffic that Ntombi realised she had forgotten to phone Olwethu. She had promised him. There would be time when they got back, she told herself. There was so much to tell him, but it would have to wait …