The prefab classroom fills up fast. Pupils crush and push past Aimée to get to their seats. It’s the second term. They all know the routine backwards. They all have their places; they all know each other. She has to catch up, fast, or be left out and fall behind. She had passed the test the school set her, and got into Grade eleven.

That wasn’t the difficult part. This is: the language; the new faces; the friends she hasn’t made yet.

She waits and watches until there is one empty chair left near the back of the classroom. It’s next to Princess. Just her luck! To land up next to the girl who first, dislikes her for no good reason, and second, dislikes her even more just because a boy called Mandla smiled at her.

She is about to sit down on the empty chair when one of Princess’s friends gets there first, pushing past Aimée, and plonking herself down, like she’s won a ‘musical chairs’ game. And Aimée is the player out.

Aimée stands awkwardly, looking around. And then Mandla comes up behind her. She hadn’t seen him in the back row of the class.

“Here,” he says, offering her his chair. Everyone is staring suddenly. Princess is glaring at her.

“Take it,” Mandla says.

“I don’t want it. I want my coin back,” she says. But he pretends not to hear. Then there is a scraping of chairs on the floor as everyone stands up because the teacher comes in. He sees Mandla offering Aimée his chair.

“Chivalrous, Mandla. Anybody know what that word means?” The teacher is tall and thin and is carrying a pile of books. He looks round the class for an answer.

There is silence.

“Chivalrous – adjective. To be polite and show respect for other people, especially women.” The class roars in mocking laughter as they repeat the word, looking at Mandla. But he just smiles.

“Quiet, class. Settle down,” the teacher says. Aimée sits down on the chair Mandla gave her, while he goes to the next classroom to find a spare chair.

Princess looks up from her cellphone. She’s been texting furiously.

“Share your books with the new member of our class, Princess,” the teacher says. But Princess just looks at Aimée and then back at her phone. She obviously has no intention of sharing anything, with Aimée. Ever.

The teacher indicates for Aimée to stand up. All eyes are on her and she wants to dissolve into the floor. To fly away, out of the classroom and up into the blue sky outside the window.

“We have a new girl in our class.” The teacher looks at the register he is holding.

“Ayim…” He stops, and tries again. “Ay…i…” The girls giggle. He stumbles over her name again. This time there is laughter. Aimée stares at the wall.

“Amy Mwamba,” the teacher says finally. “We’ll just call you Amy. It’s easier.” He smiles.

She can sit down. She can breathe again.

The lessons pass in a blur. At break she spends the time searching for Noki, but she can’t find her.

Before the end of school the English teacher calls the class to attention.

“Tonight I want each of you to write a few paragraphs about yourself. And Themba, I don’t want a rap song from Jay Z…”

“So if it’s my own rap, genuine, it’s OK Miss?” the boy says, cheekily.

The siren sounds and all the learners crush to get out of the door. Mandla is one of the first to take the gap. It is the end of the day and he still has Aimée’s coin. There is no sign that he is going to give it back any time soon.

Aimée is left in the classroom with Princess and her two friends. They have been waiting for her. As she walks towards the door, they are faster and get there first.

Princess blocks the doorway. She grabs Aimée’s arm. “Stay away from Mandla,” she hisses.

Aimée nods.

“Amy Mumba Wumba,” Princess laughs and her friends laugh with her. “You see, Mumba Wumba, Mandla is mine.”

“Does Mandla know that yet?” Noki asks Princess. She has run up to find Aimée, to take the taxi home with her.

“You’re just jealous,” says Princess. “Because you’re ugly and you won’t stand a chance with him.”

“Nobody stands a chance with him,” says Noki.

“Anyway,” says Princess’s friend, “even if Mandla does look at this ‘wumba mumba’ girl he’ll lose interest. Eat her up and spit her out. I bet she tastes disgusting. You know Mandla. It’s you he really wants, Princess.”

Aimée has seen this kind of girl before: one who says anything her friends want to hear, even if it’s not true.

Just then Mandla and a group of boys walk towards them.

“Stay away from Princess and her friends,” Noki says to Aimée, loud enough for Princess and Mandla to hear. “Those girls are riddled with bitchiness, and I hear it’s contagious.”

Then she grabs Aimée’s arm. “Come on, let’s go. I haven’t got time for these girls.”

Mandla laughs, impressed at Noki’s attitude. As they walk past him, Aimée feels his eyes on her. He jogs after Aimée and Noki, who have been joined by her friend Chantelle, and catches them by the school gate.

“If you want your coin back, meet me by the tree down there by the fence, at break tomorrow.” He winks.

Aimée blushes.

She walks home with Noki and Chantelle, a smile in her heart. The day has just got a whole lot better.

Chantelle asks Aimée where she lives and then tells her about the landlady, Mrs van Rheenen, who rents the Mwamba’s a shack in her back yard.

“I know her,” Chantelle rolls her eyes. “She’s a skelm. She’s one of my uncle’s ex-girlfriends. Sold my mom plants once, insisted on planting them herself. When they all fell over my mom pulled them up and saw they didn’t have roots. Not a single one. They were just leaves. I bet she rips you off with rent.”

“Tell me about it,” says Aimée.

“I’ll wait for you here tomorrow morning. We can get the taxi together,” says Noki when they reach Aimée’s street. “Hey, I think Mandla likes you,” she calls back to Aimée as she walks off.

“Noki, when you said that nobody stands a chance with Mandla, what did you mean?” Aimée calls back after her.

But a bus passes, spraying them with fumes and dirt. And her words are lost on the air.

* * *

Tell us what you think: Will Mandla give Aimée her coin back, and why is he keeping it?