Maybe if she got a tattoo, people would notice her.
But in her heart, Nelani knew it wouldn’t make any difference. It was the same when she tried new hairstyles or colours, changed her make-up, wore new clothes.
She was quiet and boring; easy to ignore. All her life, especially at home with her family, she had felt unseen and unheard.
So, a tatt? She looked in at the shop where people got them done. Someone had tried to turn it into a vape lounge a year ago, but people here in Tonga mostly preferred the ordinary, old-fashioned way of smoking both tobacco and weed. The shop had gone back to being a combination of tattoo parlour, barber, and health shop.
Should she? Get inked?
The door was open but a curtain thingie of strips of fake-looking leather made it difficult to see inside. Nelani lifted a hand, parting the strips. They felt greasy.
“Sawubona!” A girl’s voice.
Okay, so just for once someone had noticed her. Well, they’d noticed her fingers, holding the curtain aside.
The voice had been friendly, so Nelani pushed her way through. Two people were inside, but it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust. It was like being in a cave, the darkness lit by four little lamps with coloured cloths thrown over them, two red, one orange, and the other deep pink. The effect was pretty and magical.
“Yebo! Um … oh!” Surprise made Nelani exclaim as she focused on the two people, a girl and a boy, both lounging against the shop’s counter. “I’ve seen you before.”
Seen them more than once. She was sure they’d even attended her school at one time, although they weren’t there anymore. More recently, she had seen them around Tonga, and once at the shopping centre in Malelane.
“For real?” The boy sounded pleased.
Nelani’s heart gave a little flutter. He looked about her age, and he definitely counted as hot, even if he was too thin – so thin that she could see what his skull looked like under his skin.
The girl was also thin, seriously skinny. But they both looked healthy otherwise, and happy, the way they were smiling at her.
Should she be nervous? Some people said this shop was something to do with a cult that went in for blood sacrifices. But then what were those Christian crosses doing hanging from a display stand, in front of a rack of scarves? The crosses were colourful, studded with coloured glass and beads.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked, in a friendly way.
“Nelani.” She couldn’t help being pleased that someone was interested enough to ask. “Nelani Sibitane.”
“Oh, we don’t bother with surnames.” The boy waved a hand. “They’re so meaningless when we’re all one family. I’m Caleb, and my sister is Miriam.”
Nelani was sure those hadn’t been their names when they’d been at her school. They’d had good SiSwati names then, hadn’t they?
But why shouldn’t they change their names? Nelani had sometimes wondered if changing her own name might make her more interesting to other people.
Tell us: Can getting a tattoo, or changing your name and looks, really make you into a different person? Or is Nelani fooling herself?