“Hey, girlfriend, welcome to the big city,” joked Mahlodi, seeing Ntombi’s eyes grow bigger as the taxi dropped them at the entrance to a huge shopping mall. Ntombi had been to Cavendish before, but this was three times the size. It was like a city in itself. Already Dirk and Alex had run on ahead and were racing one other – Alex up the stairs and Dirk up the escalator. The other contestants hung back in a group.
“Come on, you two,” Mahlodi said to Ntombi and Katrina, who gaped at a shop full of computers and televisions with wide screens, flashing colour. Everything was larger than life. “Have you never seen a mall before? Not like the twins. I bet they spend half their lives in malls. They probably don’t know if it’s night or day outside. In fact the world could be taken over by aliens and they wouldn’t care. As long as they could shop.” Ntombi and Katrina laughed. I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of that myself, Ntombi thought. She had never seen so many clothes and shoes and computers and perfumes. The shop windows screamed with colour. A bright pink dress caught her eye. Busi would die for that, she thought, and felt a stab of homesickness.
She walked on quickly to join Mahlodi and Katrina, who were waiting at the bottom of an escalator to another whole level of shops. She watched as they got on. And then suddenly there was Alex. He’d come out of a music shop and was waiting for her. “You’ve gotta move faster,” he joked. “And keep your eyes open. This is Jozi.” They got onto the escalator together. He was standing right behind her. “Hey there. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your singing this morning.” He put his hand out to steady her as someone pushed past. “I’ve had that song in my head all day. It was hard for me to concentrate on my solo.”
“You were good, too,” said Ntombi as they got off the escalator. And with that she began walking faster to catch up with Mahlodi.
“Hey, you trying to win a race?” he joked.
Then Dirk called him over to a shop window. His eyes were out on stalks as he admired the new iPod range. Mahlodi laughed and nudged Ntombi. “Hey, stop looking at the guys for a minute – or is it the iPods you like? Take a look at the twins – they’re in seventh heaven,” joked Mahlodi, pointing at Sindiwe and Lindiwe, who had disappeared through the doors of one of the fanciest shops Ntombi had ever seen. She watched as they pranced around the shop fingering this and that expensive dress.
“We’re definitely coming back with Daddy,” one said, coming out. “That Carducci shirt was only R400,” said the other.
Ntombi could never afford something like that. “They think money grows on trees,” said Mahlodi.
“No, they know that money grows on their daddy,” joked Alex, who had joined them. “He’s really rich. He’ll probably try to bribe the judges. He’s done it before.”
“Seriously?” Ntombi had forgotten that she had told herself she wouldn’t speak to Alex.
“Seriously … at this talent contest in Durban. Everyone knew that this one girl sang better – she was even signed up by a record company. But who won?” He jerked his head towards the twins.
“Money buys you lots of things,” said Alex. “But it can’t buy you love.” He looked at Ntombi.
“Yeah, I’m not so sure of that,” said Mahlodi. “It certainly might buy them a husband.”
“Although maybe they will charge so much lobola nobody will marry them,” said Ntombi, and they all laughed.
For a moment she wondered what it must be like for someone to be interested in you only for your money, or for what you looked like. That wasn’t true love. But then she thought about her dad. He had really loved her mom. So why had he left?
“Here comes Dirk,” said Alex. “Believe it or not, the dude can’t take his mind off the terrible twins.”
Dirk heard him and laughed. “You’re just jealous because they won’t look at you,” he said.
The twins had already chosen the best table in the restaurant and were sipping sparkling water through straws, their lips pouting in the same way.
“How is it that they get there first every time?” Andile asked.
“Not when it comes to the finals,” Alex assured him.
Everything looked perfect to Ntombi – the sofas had plump, soft cushions and the coloured lampshades made the light warm and bright. Waiters rushed around the place carrying pink milkshakes, steak and chips, and other foods that Ntombi didn’t even recognise. The smell of sizzling burgers made her hungry suddenly.
She and the other girls headed off to the toilets to freshen up. The twins joined them and spread their collection of lipsticks, blushers and mascaras all over the counter. They took a long time applying a new layer of foundation to their already made-up faces. When Ntombi’s cell rang, Lindiwe was quick to notice.
“Boyfriend?” she asked. Ntombi turned her back to her as she answered. She didn’t want her anywhere near her phone again.
It was Zinzi. “Hello?” She could hardly hear her with the noise of chattering in the background. It seemed all the women in the restaurant were suddenly in the toilets.
“What is it, Zinzi? Is it Mom? What has happened?”
“I saw Olwethu with another girl today … They were standing really close together and laughing.” Ntombi didn’t reply. Zinzi went on, “She was really hot, with dimples. Ntombi – are you there? Can you hear me?”
Ntombi felt like someone had punched her in the stomach. “Yes, yes, I’m here. Zinzi – are you sure? Was it Olwethu? Have you seen the girl before?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Zinzi said. “You think I’m stupid?” Ntombi heard a voice in the background. “I must go,” said Zinzi quickly, and the line went dead.
Ntombi stood there, stunned. Her hands were trembling. Olwethu and another girl. It wasn’t believable, it couldn’t be real. She could not imagine Olwethu’s smile for someone else, his kiss on someone else’s mouth.
“What’s wrong, country girl?” It was Sindiwe. “Boyfriend trouble?”
Mahlodi was washing her hands, and saw Ntombi’s face. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” said Ntombi. But she didn’t look fine.
She looked at her shocked face in the mirror. Then she took a deep breath.
It’s probably nothing, she said to herself. Anyway, Olwethu’s allowed to have friends. After all, I’ve been laughing with the other guys here – it doesn’t mean anything. She splashed herself with cold water in the hope that it would wash away her fears.
“Hurry up, girlfriend,” said Mahlodi, drying her hands. “The boys will eat all the food.” She looked at Ntombi’s face in the mirror. “Are you sure you’re OK, girl?”
“I’m fine,” said Ntombi, as they went to join the others. Mahlodi sat down next to Katrina, leaving a space on the sofa next to Alex, who looked really pleased to be sitting next to Ntombi.
“So, what are you having?” he asked her. “I’m having the biggest steak they’ve got.”
“But that’s R80!” said Ntombi, shocked.
“Hey, we’re not paying – relax,” said Alex. “This is sponsored. You can order anything.”
“We’re having salads,” said one of the twins. “We have to watch our weight. We’ve got the Girls’ High Beauty Pageant next month.”
The other one looked wistfully at the menu. “Don’t you think we can just have the chicken wings?”
The other twin wagged her finger. “Now, now, Sindiwe, what would Daddy say? No, no, just salad, sister dear.”
“I have to eat healthily, which means a balanced diet,” said Mahlodi. “I need the energy for soccer. We train just about every day.”
“I’m surprised you have time to sing, Mahlodi,” Sindiwe said. “I can hear you don’t practise much.”
Mahlodi ignored them, instead chatting to Alex. After a while he turned to Ntombi. “Come on, you’ve hardly said a word,” he teased her.
Ntombi gave him a big smile. If Olwethu was out there having fun, why shouldn’t she? She wouldn’t let anything spoil it. And she would enjoy Alex’s flirting. What was wrong with that? As long as she didn’t take it further, it didn’t matter. When the waiter came she asked for the same steak Alex had ordered, with extras.
She talked brightly. She was having a good time! Over ice cream and chocolate sauce Alex told her about his family. How he used to listen to his dad playing old records – Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa – and how he had made his family laugh when he tried to sing along before he could even speak. “I had to fight for attention, with seven kids to compete with,” he chuckled. “I got this old guitar. My dad told me if I could play he would send me to lessons. I never thought I’d make it here today.”
It’s tough, we all want it so badly,” said Dirk.
“I know,” said Ntombi.
“Hey, but there’s always a next time, whatever happens,” said the thin blonde girl on the other side of the table.
“How would you spend the money?” asked Dirk.
“We’re going to buy Mini Coopers,” said Sindiwe.
“In pink – identical,” added Lindiwe.
“Girls, I have to break some bad news to you,” said Alex. “The prize money isn’t nearly enough and, besides, only one person can win.”
“What would you do?” Mahlodi asked Andile the rapper.
“I’d love to get a good sound system, but I think I’d probably put my brother back in school.” The table was silent for a moment as they all looked at him. “My brother’s good at science. But there was no money at home so he had to leave school, get a job. He should be getting an education.”
“Didn’t take you for that type,” said one of the twins. She sniggered softly to her twin, but loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I thought he would buy drugs with it.”
“Ignore them,” Mahlodi said. “Don’t listen to them, Andile.”
Andile flashed her a grin. He was quite handsome under the hoody. “Don’t worry, Mahlodi, I won’t.”
“And you?” Mahlodi asked Katrina. “What would you do?”
“I’d put the money towards buying my family a decent house,” she answered. “You?”
“I’d set up another girls’ soccer club,” said Mahlodi.
“Dreams, dreams,” said Alex. “How about you, Ntombi?” But she was saved by the waiter arriving with the bill. She realised she wasn’t sure what her dreams were any more.
As they drove back in the private taxi the sun was setting, and the sky was streaked with pink and red. “That’s so beautiful,” gasped Ntombi.
“Yeah, at least pollution is good for something. We get the best sunsets here,” Dirk smiled.
Alex was looking at the driver, checking that he wasn’t watching them. He pulled out a six-pack of cider.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to get drunk on these.”
“Pity,” said the boys, as they handed them around.
“Too many calories,” said the twins.
“More for us,” Andile said as he took a big swig.
“Hey, we shouldn’t be doing this,” said Katrina. “Agnes trusted us to go out and come back on our own, responsibly. We can’t break her trust, guys.”
“Watch me,” said Alex, taking a slug of cider. Ntombi held the cider in her hand.
“Come on, stop taking baby sips,” Alex said to her. “Here, let me show you how.” He put his arm around her shoulders and tipped the bottle to her lips. She gulped as some liquid spilled on her cheeks. He gently wiped it off with the sleeve of his jacket, and for a moment their faces were almost close enough for a kiss. But then the taxi swung into the hostel driveway and Ntombi was squashed against Mahlodi on her other side.
“Quick! Put the bottles away!” said Andile. “We’re back.” Dirk stashed the bottles in his backpack. Agnes checked them back in and asked them if they had had a good time.
“Very good,” said Alex, winking at her.
“Remember – 7 .30 a.m. in the rec room,” she said, and everyone groaned.
By the time Ntombi got back to the dormitory her head was spinning. It was all she could do to brush her teeth and collapse into her bed.
Mahlodi was already fast asleep when Ntombi’s cell rang. Ntombi fumbled for it in her bag. She peered at the bright green screen. Olwethu calling. Right now she couldn’t face talking to him, not with Zinzi’s poisonous words in her ear. She let it ring and ring and then it stopped. There was a little beep for the message.
She scrolled down. “Goodnight. I love you,” it said. She smiled. Surely Olwethu would never deceive her – he wasn’t that kind of guy. Zinzi had got it wrong. Wasn’t this proof?
Then she remembered the moment in the taxi with Alex, and felt a wave of guilt. She had been silly, but nothing had happened. Everything was fine. She lay back, planning the message she was going to write to Olwethu – “Love you too … Jozi cool but …” Before she could get any further she had fallen asleep.
It must have been close to midnight when her phone rang again. She sat up in bed half asleep. For a moment she couldn’t remember where she was. It was strange not to have Zinzi next to her, and she couldn’t make out the different shapes in the darkness. The little screen was bright again in her hand. The ringing stopped and a message came through. This time she would reply to Olwethu, she thought – tell him she loved and missed him. But it wasn’t Olwethu and her breath caught in her throat as she read:
u thnk u’re gwng up. dis is a warng. u’re gwing dwn.
She looked around the room, suddenly feeling everything closing in on her in the dark. Then she tiptoed to the door and made sure that it was locked before she got back into bed. Who could send her such a terrible message?