I WAS secretly worried that some of my enthusiasm might have faded overnight, but I wake up the next morning feeling seriously motivated.
I can tell Lael feels the same. She perches on the end of my bed while I dress and pokes at the greasy doughnut box crumpled up and shoved into my dustbin.
“Can you believe we ate all that?”
“I know. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know what came over us.”
“I couldn’t eat a doughtnut now if you gave me a million bucks.”
“Two million bucks. Just the smell of that box makes me want to hurl. Put it back in the bin.”
“I wonder if this is what a food hangover feels like.”
I know exactly what she means. I’ve got a slight headache, and a tummy that says ‘don’t mess with me’ – like that time Lael and I had three glasses each from the bottle of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik we found in her mom’s liquor cabinet.
Urrgh … why did I have to think about that now?
But apart from the food hangover, I feel great. This is a brand new start for me. I’m on my way to a newer, better me, and I can’t wait to get there.
The other girls emerge from their cubicles, yawning and stretching. Some head off to the showers, while those who like to bath at night start pulling on their uniforms. Then everyone drifts down to the dining-hall.
“Coming?” Yasmin asks Lael and me.
“In a minute,” I say, pretending to be looking for something.
I notice Sophie giving us a suspicious look, but she also heads downstairs for breakfast.
“Right!” Lael says, closing the door. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
We dig sachets of the Brand New You breakfast shakes out of our cupboards.
“I’m having strawberry this morning,” I say. “What about you?”
“Vanilla,” she calls back. “Now what’s happened to the instructions? I know I put them … okay, wait … here they are. ‘Place contents of one sachet in a glass and mix with 250ml of fat-free milk.’ Oh, no!”
We look at each other in dismay.
“Milk. We haven’t got any milk. We’ll have to go down to the dining-hall and pinch some.”
“No good,” I say. “They only have full-cream. There’s one tiny jug of fat-free at the teacher’s table, but that’s it.”
“Then it’ll have to be full-cream.”
“No, that’s no good either. That’ll throw the calorie count right out, not to mention the number of fat grams. We’ll be sabotaging ourselves before we’ve even got started.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.” I stare at the sachet as though it might contain some suggestions on how to make milk appear out of thin air. Then my face clears. “Look, it says you can also mix one and a half sachets with plain water if you choose. We’ll just have to do that then. It’ll be fine.”
Lael decides to have strawberry as well so that we can use up three sachets without any leftovers. We empty the powder into our shakers and fill them up with tap water. The powder floats spookily on top of the water, bending but not breaking the surface – like in a science experiment. We fit the tops of the shakers into place and start shaking for all we’re worth.
“That should do it,” Lael says after about two minutes.
“Yeah…” I puff, ashamed at how out of breath I am.
“We really need to shape up. If this is how exhausted we are after just mixing our shakes, I think we need to do some exercise.”
I pull a face. I’ve never been all that keen on exercise. Lael is much sportier than me.
“I think I’ll ease into the diet for a couple of days first and see how I go before I start the exercise thing,” I say vaguely.
“Okay … well … cheers! Bottoms up.”
We drink our shakes straight out of the shakers seeing as we don’t have any cups or glasses either. They taste … quite nice, actually. Not all that different from a real milkshake, except not as sweet. They’re thicker too, somehow, with a kind of fibre-y texture that you can almost chew.
“Not bad,” Lael says, rinsing her shaker under the tap. “And it really fills you up.”
I give my tummy an experimental prod. She’s right. Sitting on top of about four doughnuts from last night, the milkshake has made me feel almost uncomfortably full.
“And now for the pills!”
I pull a face as Lael plonks three pill bottles in front of me. We need to take two of each three times a day.
“What is all this anyway?”
“Vitamin supplement with minerals and trace elements, carb and fat blocker, and natural appetite control supplement. Come on, let’s get it down. The others will be coming back from breakfast soon.”
I glance at my watch and see that she’s right. We’ve been faffing about for nearly twenty minutes. I start gulping down the pills with water. By the sixth one, I’m gagging, but I manage to choke it down. Lael and I pack the evidence back into our cupboards. Then we head out to face the day.
By lunchtime, I’m really proud of how I’ve coped with the morning. It wasn’t even difficult to avoid the fruit and sandwiches at break. Instead of going back to Sisulu House, Lael and I just hung out on the sports field, Googling weight-loss tips on our phones. It was actually quite enjoyable not to have our break disturbed by food for once. It felt like we were getting more time to chill. I even found the Brand New You website and read the real-life testimonials of people who lost huge amounts of weight on the programme.
It’s the pictures that I find most amazing. There was this one woman who was so obese she was practically circular. She looked like someone who would need a seatbelt-extender on an aeroplane. And probably some help getting out of the seat too.
And then in the “after” picture, there she is nearly a hundred pounds lighter. What’s that – about 50 kgs or
so? Now she’s a model who has just entered her fourth Body-Beautiful competition. It’s absolutely amazing. And that’s after three kids as well.
Mind you, my mom had three kids and she’s as skinny as anything. But she had us young. She was only nineteen when I was born. Sometimes it gives me a shock to realise I’m only three years younger than my mom was when she married my dad and had me. And anyway, she’s always had the metabolism of a stick insect on speed, so she doesn’t count.
Second break also passes happily in a haze of weight-loss Googling. But by lunchtime, I have to admit I’m quite peckish. Last night’s doughnuts have finally worn off and I’m looking forward to trying out one of the Brand New You soups.
“Soup-time, yummy!” Lael comes into the dormitory, rubbing her hands together. “Let’s go and do this in the common room. There’s that kettle in the matrics’ study, but I don’t think we should risk it. If they catch us, we’ll get detention.
We slip some sachets under our shirts and head downstairs to the common room.
“Right, what have we got?”
Lael checks the sachets. “Hearty Beef, Carrot and Coriander, and Creamy Butternut. Gosh, it’s hard to choose, isn’t it?”
“Never mind, we’ll get through all of them in the end. I’m going to have the Creamy Butternut today. It sounds delicious.”
And it is. It’s thick, rich, hot and filling. I enjoy every mouthful, feeling it slide down into my tummy, warming me up and giving me energy. I can’t say I enjoy swallowing the six pills nearly as much, but I do
it because I know I need them if I’m going to make this diet work.
“We’re lucky to be on a diet that lets us have such great food,” Lael says as she comes back from rinsing her mug.
“I know, right? And you know what – I feel a bit lighter already.” I smooth a hand over my stomach, convinced it feels flatter than yesterday.
“Well, I’m not leaving it to chance. I’m going for a run while everyone is still at lunch. Sure you don’t want to come?”
I give a little shudder. “Quite sure, thanks. I’ll just sit here and let that soup settle a bit.”
“Suit yourself!” She bounces out, looking all fit and energetic in her red PE shorts and trainers. To say that Lael is sportier than me is like saying Rihanna can sing better than me. By rights she should be super-thin considering how active she is, but since when does life ever play fair?I settle down in an armchair and start flicking through my phone, catching up on everyone’s BBM updates. Before long, I feel my eyes start to droop.
When I open them again – which can’t be more than five minutes later – I find James Ellison sitting in a chair opposite me.
I give a tiny gasp and sit bolt upright. “What are you doing here? You scared me half to death.”
“Oh, nothing. Just sitting here. Passing the time of day. Watching you sleep…”
He says this in a serial killer voice, with bugged-out eyes and waggling fingers.
I refuse to smile. “No, seriously, who does that? Would it kill you to clear your throat or something? I could have been drooling, for goodness sake. Or talking in my sleep.”
“You were. You said, ‘I love him. He’s so groovy. I want to go steady with him.’ And then you made kissy-kissy noises with your mouth.”
This time I laugh out loud.
“Groovy? Go steady? Not even in my dreams do I join the cast of Grease. Shouldn’t you be in the dining-hall hoovering up a chicken burger?” As I say it, I suddenly realise that I am the teensiest bit hungry, even after the soup.
“Trying to get rid of me, hey? Fine, I’ll go. And I won’t tell you about my secret-agent work in the headmaster’s study.”
He gets up and swaggers towards the door, knowing full well I’m going to scream for him to come back.
I can’t help myself. “Come back! Sit down. I take it all back. You can watch me sleep anytime you like, Mr Creepy. Just tell me what you found out. I wish Lael hadn’t picked now to go for a run. She could have listened and taken notes. I’m going to have to remember everything to tell her later.”
“Your Jewish friend? Is she the ringleader of this plan?”
I give him a sharp look. “I don’t think her religion is exactly relevant here. Let’s just call her my friend, okay?”
He gives me a puzzled look, as if he genuinely has no idea what I’m getting at.
“Okay. Your friend, then.”
“Right. So. What did you find out?”
“Well, the place is basically Fort Knox. You’d think they were keeping the crown jewels in there. Security gate. Alarm. Armed response. Beams. The whole deal.”
“I knew it.” My mood dips. “It’s hopeless. We’ll just have to give up. It was a silly idea anyway.”
“Is that any way to talk? I didn’t say it was hopeless. I just said they’ve got excellent security. For instance, I wouldn’t suggest trying to break in when it’s all locked up for the night. But the daytime is a whole different kettle of fish. That’s when we’ve got what I like to call the human element to deal with. And the human element is definitely their Achilles heel. Uh … that means weak point.”
“I know what it means,” I snap. “I might not be white, but English is still my home language, you know.”
“Okay. Sorry. Well, the human element I’m thinking of is the secretary.”
“You mean Mrs Pieterse? She’s a friend of my mom’s.”
“No, not her. Mrs Pieterse is the school secretary, isn’t she? She works in the main admin offices. No, the one I’m talking about is the headmaster’s personal secretary. Mrs Andrews, or something.”
“Anderssen,” I correct. “Mrs Anderssen.”
“That’s right. Well, she works in this little office that’s right next door to the headmaster’s study, and she doesn’t have a security gate on her door, or alarms, or beams, or anything.”
“Right…?” I’m trying to follow his logic here.
“Plus, there’s an internal door between her office and his…”
“Hang on a minute!” I try to picture the office as I saw it in January. I close my eyes to help me think. When I open them again, I can’t keep the disappointment out of my voice. “No, that’s no good either. There is a door between the two offices, but it’s made from reinforced steel. Dr Hussein showed it to my dad. We’d never get through it.”
“Not while it’s locked, anyway,” he says, raising his eyebrows at me.
“Isn’t it always locked?”
“Not on a Wednesday morning when Mrs Anderssen does her filing.”
“Really. She keeps all her paperwork on her desk for the week, and then on Wednesdays she files the lot. It takes her the whole morning and she basically leaves the inter-leading door unlocked the entire time. You know, while she makes tea, goes to the cloakroom, wanders about…” He grins at my eager face.
“Is this for real?”
“Of course it is. Would I lie to you?”
“But this is brilliant! This makes it all possible.”
A bit too possible, maybe. Up until now, this plan felt like a game. Like when my brothers and I used to play at being the Famous Five or the Secret Seven. It was something we’d have fun planning, but would never actually do in real life.
“Wait a minute,” I say, thinking hard. “Let’s not forget about the infra-red beams. Even if we do manage to get into his office, we can’t just open the trophy cabinet and help ourselves to the shield. An alarm will go off and the armed response company will arrive.”
“Trinity, Trinity…” James shakes his head. “When are you going to learn that I’m not just a pretty face?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve found a way around that too?”
“Of course I have. It’s actually very simple. The beams are designed for someone who doesn’t know they’re there. Dr Hussein’s big mistake was to tell you
about it in the first place. Because as soon as you know it’s there, it’s almost too easy to get around. Have you got a torch?”
I’m mystified. “What do you want a torch for?”
“Find me one and you’ll see.”
I think hard for a moment. Torch … torch. Who does he think I am – a boy? Why would I have a torch with me?
Then a little bell goes off in my head. I crouch down and start searching through the common-room TV cabinet.
“Okay … let’s see. Loadshedding supplies. Candles. Matches. Battery-powered lamps. Aha! Here we go. A torch.” I straighten up and hold it out to him. He doesn’t take it.
“Switch it on,” he says.
I switch it on and am surprised to see that it works. Feebly, but it works.
“Now shine it against the back of your chair.”
“Now hold your hand up to break the beam.”
“Okay.” I look down at the bright disc of light reflected against the palm of my hand. “Is there a point to this?”
“That torch is the security beam and your hand is the Gumede Shield. Imagine there’s another eye built into the back of your chair and take your hand away. As soon as the beam hits that other eye, an alarm is triggered. So as soon as someone removes the shield, an alarm will go off. But the beam doesn’t know or care what is in its way. It has no way of recognising the shield in particular. So as long as there is something in its way, the alarm won’t go off.”
“I see!” I say, excited. “So all we need to do is put a book or something in the way of the beam, and then remove the shield.”
“Exactly!” He looks pleased with himself.
“That’s so easy! I can’t believe it’s so simple. Are you sure that’s all there is to it?”
“Absolutely. Like I said, it’s designed for someone who doesn’t know it’s there. And let’s face it, it’s not as though the shield has any actual value. It’s just a piece of wood with some brass on it. You couldn’t sell it for money, for example. There’s other stuff in the office that’s much more valuable.”
“Well, we aren’t interested in any of that other stuff,” I say defensively. “We’re not thieves, you know. It’s not like we’re pinching that shield for ourselves. We’re doing it for girls everywhere.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so. But, listen, thanks so much for doing this. I don’t know how you managed to get all that information, but it’s fantastic. Exactly what we need. You must have spent hours hanging around outside the office. I hope you’re not going to get into any trouble. You were careful, weren’t you?”
He looks smug. “Don’t worry about me. I’m practically a ninja. No one saw what I was doing.”
“Well, still. The girls of Sisulu House thank you. You might be a total and utter sexist pig most of the time, but today you did a good thing.”
“Oh, boy! Suppertime.”
I can’t help rubbing my hands together and grinning. It’s all I can do to keep from drooling.
“I know!” Lael has the same eager look on her face. “The milkshake and the soup were nice and everything, but I’m just about ready for some real food now. Isn’t it six o’clock yet?”
I glance at my watch for the millionth time. “Still ten minutes to go.”
“We can basically eat whatever we like for supper tonight, right?”
“I think so,” I say doubtfully. “I mean, I don’t think we can have dessert or anything like that, but we can definitely have a square meal.”
“Oh, boy!” she says happily.
“Maybe we should just … you know … double-check what it says about suppers. We don’t want to make a mistake, do we? Like maybe there are restrictions on the carbs or something. One roast potato instead of two – that kind of thing.”
Lael’s lip quivers for an instant, but she pulls herself together. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
She finds the Brand New You information booklet and flips through pages of waffle about selenium and chromium and all the other mysterious ‘iums’ in the pills we have to take.
“Okay, here it is.”
“In the evening, you are free to enjoy a balanced, satisfying meal with your family,” I say, reading over her shoulder. “That sounds all right, doesn’t it?”
“Hang on, there’s more…” Lael turns the page and there we are, face to face with the bad news.
“One portion of lean protein, no larger than a pack of playing cards,” I read, my voice rising to a wail. “As much salad or steamed vegetables as you desire…”
“…choosing items from the list below,” Lael continues. “‘Use a zesty squeeze of lemon juice or a drizzle of balsamic vinegar to liven up your delicious salad.’ Oh no! This is a total swizz.”
“Exactly!” I say indignantly. “Look at that picture on the previous page.” I point to a full-colour photograph of a plate groaning with roast chicken, covered in crispy golden skin, a heap of roast potatoes with gravy, and a pile of vegetables gleaming with butter. “Whoever’s eating that lot has got it made. But it’s certainly not anyone on the Brand New You diet.”
“Okay,” Lael says, running her fingers through her hair. “Let’s just back up for a moment and think.”
“About what?” Disappointment quivers in my voice. I can’t help it.
“We’re feeling let down, right? This isn’t what we were expecting. We thought we could basically eat anything we liked tonight. We’d been looking forward to it all day.”
“Your point being?” I ask sharply.
“My point being that we’ll get through this, Trinity. We’ve had hardly anything to eat the whole day – just a milkshake and some soup. So I bet our stomachs have really shrunk. It’s just that our minds haven’t quite caught up yet. You know that old expression, your eyes are bigger than your stomach?”
“Uh huh.” My ouma uses that line on my brothers all the time.
“Well, I bet when we start eating this evening we’ll find that it doesn’t take all that much to fill us up. Plus!
We can eat as much salad as we like. Don’t forget that part. We can go completely mad on salad. We can eat three bowls of it if we like.”
“I guess…” I say reluctantly. ‘Go completely mad’ and ‘salad’ are not concepts I’ve ever thought of putting in the same sentence before. ‘Go completely mad’ and ‘pizza’, on the other hand, work really well together.
“And anyway, look at this picture of the Brand New You woman eating salad,” Lael says, holding the booklet out to me. “Doesn’t she look happy? Doesn’t she look like she’s enjoying her salad?”
“She looks high,” I say, staring at the expression of crazed ecstasy on the woman’s face.
But Lael won’t be deterred. She’s in perfect-dieter mode and nothing is going to put her off. It’s lucky one of us is, because I was teetering on the brink of giving up. But her pep talk has worked. I’m back in the zone. I’m going into that dining-hall and I’m eating salad if it kills me.