“What were you doing there?” her mother said. “Don’t you know that’s not a place for kids?” Ntombi couldn’t take any more. She ran into their room and hid herself under the blankets, exhausted, and cried.
Ntombi lay in bed with her cellphone in her hand. Her head was spinning from the drink she’d had at the party. She clung onto her phone like a lifeline in the dark – a lifeline of love to her friends and safety. If only she had her father’s cellphone number, everything would be okay. She needed his advice right now. What had happened at the party had been so confusing. Mzi was confusing. She couldn’t make him out. When he was being sweet and sensitive she felt so proud to be his girlfriend, but when that angry wall went up, and she couldn’t reach the kindness in Mzi anymore, he frightened her. Why couldn’t he be content to kiss her? Why did guys always want more? Maybe she just didn’t understand them? If her dad were here, he could give her some good advice, advice her mother was too busy to bother with.
And then there was love. Why couldn’t love just be good? Why couldn’t it just be simple? She finally fell asleep with these thoughts swirling around in her head. She wanted so badly for things to work out with Mzi, for things to be different and romantic, like in the movies…
As she slid down into her dreams she tried to see Mzi’s face; she wanted to take him into the dream with her. At least there things could be perfect. They could walk hand in hand on warm white sand; next to a tropical sea on some paradise island; lie on the beach, his fingers lightly tracing across her face, her arms; his warm lips pressing down on hers, gently. His breath warm and sweet in her ear, against her hair. “I love you,” he would whisper, “and I always will.” They would talk for hours. He would help her with the lyrics for her first song. She would blot out what had happened down at the river. She would dream up a different ending to the night.
But where she went in her dream she couldn’t control. And however hard she tried to pull Mzi down with her into her dream, as soon as she was asleep she couldn’t hold onto him anymore. And soon the dream became a nightmare. The paradise island was replaced by somewhere noisy, and filled with fluorescent lights. She was standing backstage in a dressing room, and all she could feel was a terrible knot in her stomach. She could hear someone singing on the stage, which must be through the door in front of her. The singing stopped and she heard clapping and cheering. A woman who was doing make-up and hair sat her down in front of a mirror. She started smoothing Ntombi’s hair and putting in clips. “We’d better hurry,” she said. “You’re on in ten minutes.”
Just then the door to the stage opened and Lettie came running down the stairs. “That was fantastic,” she said. “They just loved me. Did you hear them cheering?” she asked Ntombi, then blew her a kiss and disappeared. Ntombi wanted to stop her, talk to her. Was this a concert? Was this the audition that would get her into the Teen Voice final? Where was she? And what had happened to Mzi?
She suddenly felt sick and had to run to the toilet, where she threw up. Ugh! She looked at her face in the mirror – she was all made-up. She didn’t look like herself anymore. Where had the real Ntombi gone? She just wanted to be herself again. But when she came out, the stylist was ooing and aahing.
“Where have you been? You’re up girl. Good luck. You look beautiful! Much better than before. Not that you weren’t pretty…” her voice trailed off.
* * *
Ntombi was walking out onto a huge stage. The lights were dazzling and blinded her. Every step she took she thought she would fall over in the ridiculous high heels the stylist had squashed onto her feet before she went on. This was not how she wanted it to be – how she had planned. She was going to wear a simple, beautiful dress with flat sandals, and very little make-up, to the auditions. She would be true to herself, not some fake. But here she was in this frilly ridiculous dress, and shoes that made her trip and lurch forward towards the mike that was waiting for her in the middle of the stage.
She didn’t know how long she had been standing there, holding the mike, when she heard a cough off stage. She turned. “Cue music,” the man mouthed. The audience had gone silent.
Then the music came on. Ntombi felt better; she knew this song so well. She could do this. Her eyes had adjusted to the lights and she could pick out people in the audience. There was her mother, with something weird in her hair, waving and blowing her kisses, there was Zakes slouched back in the next seat with his arms folded on his beer belly.
In her dream Ntombi started to sing. It was beautiful; she could see on the faces of the audience that they were amazed. There was no doubt that she would be singing her way into the final.
Her eyes moved slowly across the crowds and then stopped. And in that second her voice stopped too. Her mouth was open but no sound came out, however hard she tried; and even worse, she had forgotten the words to the song. There in the audience, right near the back of the hall, sat Mzi – and next to him sat Thumi, and his arm was around her. He wasn’t even looking at Ntombi. His head was bent and he was kissing Thumi on the neck, and she was smiling up at Ntombi – that “cat who got the cream” smile. Suddenly the audience was booing. Then someone in the front row stood up and shouted, “Get her off! Get her off!”