“YOU TWO are like different people.” Nosipho stares at Lael and me. “Did you ask Matron for Vitamin B shots or something?”
“They look like they’re on speed to me,” Yasmin says.
Lael and I share a grin.
“We’re not on anything,” she says. “We’ve just got our mojo back after a low-energy slump.”
Sophie saunters over in one of her slinky satin nighties. The rest of us are wearing cotton Hello Kitty or Little Miss pyjamas, but Sophie always goes to bed looking like she’s about to film a lingerie advert. There’s a little smile on her face that I don’t trust.
“You both seem so well all of a sudden,” she says. “Almost as if you’ve become a Brand New You or something…”
Lael slams her hand down on a bedside table, making us all jump.
“You’ve been going through my cupboards, haven’t you? How dare you poke through my stuff?”
Sophie’s doesn’t deny it. “I like to know what’s going on, that’s all.”
“What is going on?” Priya asks, looking completely fogged.
“They’ve been on a crash diet,” Sophie says casually. “One of those milkshake and supplement diets. That’s why they’ve been so cranky lately. But the way they
were shovelling in pudding this evening, I’d say they’ve dropped it now. Thank goodness.”
“You just stay out of my cupboard,” Lael says between gritted teeth.
“Well, you two have been acting a little oddly lately,” Nosipho puts in. “We’ve all noticed, although we didn’t like to say anything.”
I shrug. “You’d be acting oddly too if you were trying to survive on less than a thousand calories a day, with most of those coming from drinks or salads. When you’re that hungry, you can’t think about anything else. You’re just surviving from one meal to the next.”
“I know,” Lael agrees. “I’ve had a memory like a sieve all week. I need to write out a list of all the things I’m supposed to be doing and start ticking them off.”
I give a sudden gasp. “Zach!”
Everyone looks around. “Where?”
“No, man. He’s not here! I’ve just remembered that he phoned me the other day. It completely slipped my mind. He’s invited me to go to the scholarship dinner with him.”
“That’s cool,” says Lael.
I squinch up my eyes in shame. “Yes, it is. But my answer to him was very uncool. I was all offish. All I could think was that I’d be at a three-course dinner and not allowed to eat anything except meat and salad.”
“Don’t tell me you said no?” Sophie asks anxiously.
I try to remember our conversation. I must have been half-catatonic at the time. “No … I seem to remember saying yes, actually. But in a rude kind of way.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter,” she says. “The point is that you’re going. You’ll just have to be extra nice to him
to make up for it. Now we need to help you sort out your outfit and your makeup.”
Lael catches my eye and I can see she is thinking exactly the same thing as I am. We can’t keep up with Sophie’s sudden changes. One moment she’s snooping through Lael’s cupboard and finding our secret Brand New You stash so she can gloat at us, and the next she’s offering to help me choose an outfit for my date. I’m starting to wonder whether schizophrenia runs in her family.
“Don’t look at me so suspiciously,” she says, amused. “I’m here to help you. When have I ever steered you wrong when it comes to clothes?”
I have to admit that the answer to that is never.
Thanks to Sophie’s help, I’m feeling pretty confident on the night of the dinner. That kilogram I lost on the diet has come back with a vengeance, but it doesn’t matter. For one thing, we’ll be starting our new diet soon, and for another, the dress I’m wearing is cleverly cut to hide any bulges.
Sophie is an artist. There’s no other word for it. I’m going to miss having access to her clothes when she finally comes to her senses and stops being nice to me.
Tonight’s dress is a little black number that’s cut on the bias so it clings in all the right places and skims over all the wrong ones. And once again the hem-length is exactly right for the shape of my legs. I thought Sophie would go overboard on the makeup tonight, but I was wrong. She’s made my eyes a bit smoky, and my lips a bit shiny, and left the rest natural.
It’s a good look, I must admit, and makes me worry that I use too much makeup the rest of the time. I need to tone it down, I guess.
One look at Zach’s face tells me he appreciates Sophie’s efforts as much as I do. He can hardly take his eyes off me. As he walks me into Memorial Hall for the start of the dinner, I can’t help thinking how far we’ve come as a couple. I remember being too shy even to speak to him. I nearly chickened out of asking him for help with my work that first time. Imagine if I had. He’d probably be going out with some other girl by now.
The thought makes me squeeze his hand a bit harder. He looks down and smiles at me.
“You don’t need to be. Just be yourself and everyone will love you. Nearly as much as I do.”
That does make me feel better.
The Memorial Hall is usually used for smart occasions, like prize-givings, that are too important for the normal hall where we have our morning assemblies. It looks unrecognisable this evening. All the walls and windows are draped in red and navy, the school colours. The floor is packed with round tables covered in floor-length white cloths and striped overlays. The light of a hundred candles sparkles off crystal and silverware.
Smartly dressed people are filing in ahead of us, checking the noticeboard to find their allocated tables. There’s a hum of well-bred conversation in the air.
I’d be feeling a lot more nervous if I weren’t used to attending black-tie dinners with my parents. We’ve hosted quite a few in our home, too. From the time my brothers and I turned twelve, our parents have expected
us to put in an appearance at these dinners and make polite conversation.
Zach’s eye flicks over the seating plan, and he leads me across the hall to Table 7 where we’re sitting with a couple of the other postmatrics and their dates and parents. Zach’s parents couldn’t make it up from Howick to be with him tonight. I like to think I’m quite good at reading people, but I honestly can’t tell whether this bothers him or not. All I know is that he’s happy to have me with him.
We’re the last people to arrive at the table, and I’m a bit surprised to find that we’ve been seated separately. But this has happened to me before at formal dinners, so I try to take it in my stride.
I find myself wedged between a Professor of Sociology who is a Brentwood old boy and now on the school board, and a guy called Justin who I recognise from the Postmatric Annexe. Oh, well. It could be worse, I guess.
Shooting a last smile at Zach, I turn my head and start chatting to the professor.
A few hours later, it’s finally all over, and I think I’ve handled it all pretty well. I’ve smiled so much in the course of the evening that my cheeks ache. I’ve listened to the professor burbling on about his research, and to Justin Whatsisname talking about his plans for university. I’ve answered endless questions about my family, without giving away any more than is already out there in the media.
I’ve sat through three courses of fancy, fiddly food – quite delicious, I must admit – and some absolutely endless speeches. Worst of all, I’ve hardly exchanged two words with Zach the whole night. He didn’t seem to be getting on too well with his neighbours. The one was somebody’s mother, and the other was Mrs Radomsky, one of our teachers.
But now it’s finally over and people are starting to leave. I sneak a glance at my watch. It’s only eleven. I’ve got permission to stay out until midnight because it’s Friday night. I’m kind of hoping Zach and I will get to spend some more time together before he takes me back to Sisulu House. Some proper one-on-one time. I feel a little shiver of excitement at the thought.
“You know,” I say as I reach down for the silver clutch Sophie lent me, “we’ve got a whole hour until I need to go back.”
Zach is staring off into the distance, but he brings his gaze back to me. “What do you mean?”
“I just mean I don’t have to clock back into Sisulu House until midnight. So we’ve got an hour to kill.”
“Right,” he says, taking my arm in a firm grasp. “Let’s go back to my room then.”
Another little thrill shivers through me. He sounds so masterful.
The black-bag-over-the-camera trick works just as smoothly as it did the first time. We wait until all the other postmatrics are safely inside the common room with their parents and their dates. Then we sneak up to Zach’s room.
I practically skip into the room ahead of him. As I hear the door slam shut behind me, I turn with a smile,
expecting him to scoop me into his arms. But he walks past me, heading for his kettle.
“Tea?” he says shortly. “Coffee?”
“Um … just a little rooibos, thanks.” I don’t really feel like anything after that huge dinner, but it seems rude to say no when he’s already put on the kettle.
“Fine. And I’ll have coffee.”
“It was a nice evening, wasn’t it?” I say, sitting down on his bed. “Everyone was so friendly. I expected to feel like a gatecrasher, but people were really welcoming.”
“Mmm. Some were more welcoming than others.”
Something about the way he says this makes me look at him more closely. It doesn’t look as though he had nearly as good a time tonight as I did. But then maybe his expectations were higher.
Standing up, I circle around behind him to start rubbing his shoulders. The last time I did this he said it really helped him to relax.
“You were unlucky with the people you were sitting next to, weren’t you?” I say sympathetically. “Mrs Radomsky and that other lady, the mom. They didn’t seem to have much to say for themselves.”
He ducks himself away from my hands. “Unlike you, you mean?”
There’s a long silence. He is obviously upset, and I have absolutely no idea why.
“Zach?” I say hesitantly. “Is anything wrong?”
“Wrong?” he repeats. “What could possibly be wrong when my girlfriend has just made a complete fool of herself – and of me – in front of all the people who will be deciding my future next year?”
I almost reel from the shock. I sink back onto his bed and stare at him in blank dismay.
“But what did I say? What did I do?”
“Oh, come on, Trinity. Don’t pretend you don’t know.”
“But I don’t!”
“Oh no, Professor Raynor!” he says, putting on a fake girlish voice. “I’m not one of the scholarship students. I’m afraid I’m more of a straight-C girl than a straight-A girl.”
“But it’s true,” I say weakly. “I was just being honest with him.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to advertise it to the whole world. How do you think it makes me look, being at the dinner with a girl who can’t even pretend to be interested in serious academic matters?”
“But I was! I did.” I try to pull my wits together to answer him. “I talked to that Justin guy about politics for ages. We were discussing the relationship between the ANC and big business.”
I look anxiously at Zach’s face, hoping to see some sign of softening. But this seems to make him even angrier.
“Oh yes, Justin!” he says sarcastically. “How could I forget? You couldn’t keep your hands off him, could you? If you’d touched his arm any more people would have thought you were his date instead of mine.”
This is a nightmare, I think to myself. This can’t be real.
I cast my mind back frantically. Could it be true? Did I keep touching Justin? I seem to remember dabbing at his arm once or twice while I was talking, in a friendly way. That’s the way I am. I’m a toucher. I don’t think twice about it .
“Do you know who you embarrassed most with your behaviour?” Zach asks between gritted teeth.
I shake my head, feeling hot shame wash over me.
“Justin,” he says. “The poor guy didn’t know where to look. He was freaked out by a total stranger coming on to him at a formal dinner party.”
“But, I d-didn’t,” I stutter. “At least, I didn’t mean to. I didn’t think…”
“That’s the trouble, isn’t it, Trinity? You don’t think.”
I stare at the floor, my cheeks burning. I’ve had some humiliating moments in my life, but this is the absolute worst. How could I have got it all so wrong? How could I have thought the evening was a success?
I’m biting the insides of my cheeks and willing myself not to cry. I mustn’t blink. As long as I don’t blink, I’ll manage not to cry.
And a small sobbing noise escapes me as tears start to pour down my cheeks.
For a moment Zach just watches me. If I thought I was humiliated before, it was nothing, nothing, compared with having him stand silently by while I cry.
I try to steady my voice. “I’m sorry,” I manage to gasp. “I’m so, so sorry.”
And then I cover my face with my hands and start sobbing for real.
A moment later I feel a weight sinking down onto the bed next to me. And a second after that – wonderfully, blissfully – I feel Zach’s arms closing around me and pulling me against him.
“Don’t cry, Trinity,” he says gently. “It’s not fair. You know I can’t stand it.”
“I’m sorry,” I gasp again. “I can’t help it.”
“Just breathe slowly. We’ve both had a stressful evening. But it’s all over now. In a moment we can talk about it calmly.”
I try to slow my breathing down like he says. In and out. Gradually the sobs start to subside.
“That’s better,” Zach says, giving me one last hug. Then he moves away slightly so we can look at each other.
“I’m so sorry,” I say for the third time. “I didn’t realise what I was doing. I just wasn’t thinking.”
“I know you didn’t do it on purpose.” He passes me a tissue. “And I’m sorry for what I said about you never thinking. That wasn’t true or fair. But you can be a little thoughtless at times.”
I nod as I feel more tears threatening to spill.
“The thing is, you must realise that the people who were at the dinner tonight are very important for my career. They’re the ones who will be writing reference letters for me one day. The whole anti-intellectual, party-girl image is fine when you’re with your friends, Trinity, but these are serious people. You have to put your best foot forward when you’re with them, otherwise it reflects badly on me.”
I remember myself chattering away – babbling, in fact – to Professor Raynor all evening, and my toes curl with embarrassment. Zach’s right. I made a total fool of myself, and didn’t even realise it. I’m so lucky he’s giving me a second chance, instead of just breaking up with me straight away.
I take a shaky breath. I’d better talk about the flirting thing, otherwise it’s just going to hang in the air between us forever.
“Look,” I say awkwardly. “About that thing with Justin…”
His lips tighten. “Yes, well, I am still a bit hurt about that, to be honest.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose, Zach. I really didn’t. That’s just the way I talk to people, both girls and guys. I’m sorry if he misunderstood it.”
“The hard part will be when I see him tomorrow and he asks me to explain why my girlfriend was coming on to him the whole evening. You’ve put me in a very awkward position.”
“Just put all the blame on me,” I say eagerly. “Explain how I’m only in Grade 10, and not really used to formal dinners. But I’ll try to do better if you’ll just give me another chance.”
Zach rewards me with a smile and a gentle stroke on the cheek. “I know you will. Look, let’s not let this spoil our evening. It’s almost midnight, so I’d better walk you back now.”
“Already?” I look at my watch and see with a jolt that he’s right. Our hour has whizzed past with all my crying and fussing. If only I hadn’t wasted it.
“I wish our evening didn’t have to end so soon,” I say, as we cross the grass behind Gumede House and veer left towards Sisulu.
“As long as you understand what I was trying to say, it wasn’t wasted,” he says, holding the door open for me.
I stick my head into the office and the common room, but there’s no one around. “I’d better go upstairs and find Matron.”
I turn towards him, wondering if he’s going to give me one of those bone-melting goodbye kisses, but he just pecks me on the cheek.
As I walk up the stairs, I can feel hot tears pricking behind my eyes again. The way he just brushed his lips against my cheek told me as clearly as words how disappointed he is in me.