“Not this again,” complained Zinzi.
“Don’t tell me, tell Mama,” said Ntombi.“If she’s ever formal wears dressed in graduation occasion
here to tell.” As they ate, on Bold, a soapie star
reclined on a lounging chair beside a pool
somewhere in America – somewhere hot and lush
with lots of money. A butler handed her an ice cold
cocktail… she didn’t have a care in the world. Her
nanny was looking after her kids, and Ntombi knew
that her fridge would be brimming with food. Just
then there was a sizzling sound and a bang from the
back of the TV. The smell of burned plastic filled the
“No!” screamed Zinzi. “Not the TV! My life has
ended.” And she buried her face under a cushion.
“Don’t be such a drama queen!” yelled Ntombi. She
went into the bedroom to get away from her sister,
before she exploded like the TV. She lay on the bed
she shared with Zinzi and started paging through a
magazine. But she wasn’t reading the words. She
kept thinking of Asanda and Lettie standing on the
stage of the school hall, learning the words of that
new song, and them all laughing and having fun as
they got one step closer to the finals, while she was
stuck in this dump with a younger sister who was
driving her crazy and not helping one bit around the
She looked down at the glamorous pop stars in the
mag. Who did she think she was, trying to compete
with girls like this? Maybe she was dreaming after
all. Maybe Zakes was right. Maybe she didn’t have
what it took to be a Teen Voice star. “Why bother
entering the competition,” he had said. “These days
you have to have the whole package: the looks, the
sex appeal and the voice. You’ll only be setting
yourself up to be taken down.”
Her dad would never have said those hurtful words.
He had told her that he was so proud of her when
she had got into the choir at Harmony High. And
when he had his employer’s car for a few days he
had taken her to practices himself. Once when she
wanted to go and get her ears pierced he had said,
“Why spoil something so beautiful already?”
Now she didn’t even know where he was, or who he
was with. Maybe he had a whole other family
somewhere, another daughter, whom he loved now,
more than her?
* * *
As she lay there she thought of the three promises
she had made to herself on New Year’s eve three
months ago. First: to enter the singing competition
and go all the way to the final. Second: not to go out
with a guy unless he was kind and respected her –
not like the guy Busi had dated in the holiday, who
had seemed the real deal – too good to be true –
because he was too good to be true. He was good
looking and clever, but he had left her with a broken
heart and a broken arm after he had pushed her and
she had tripped and fallen hard. If Ntombi and
Asanda hadn’t run when they heard her cries from
behind the sports shed at school, things might have
been a lot worse. But when they appeared Ebenezer
had left her and run – a coward at heart.
The third promise was to find her dad and bring him
home. There was no way that she was going to let
Zakes move in with them and pretend to be their
Ntombi woke up from a nightmare in the middle of
the night. In the dream she was wearing a long pink
dress with lots of frills and her friend Asanda was
putting a tiara with plastic flowers in her hair. They
were in the changing rooms at the church hall where
the auditions were going to be for the Teen Voice
competition. First Ntombi thought she had won the
competition and she was really excited. She was
ready to walk out on the stage in front of hundreds of
people and be given flowers and a recording
contract. Pink wasn’t really her colour, but who
cared, when she was about to become a pop star?
But when she walked out into the hall there were no
screaming teenage fans and no sign of a
microphone. In fact the hall was full of men and
women dressed in suits and formal dresses. And
there at the back, next to the door was her mother.
She was also dressed in a huge pink dress, with
more frills and lace than Ntombi’s. For a second
Ntombi thought that this might be her own wedding,
and that at any minute the handsomest, coolest guy
was going to appear, walk towards her and announce
that he was her fiancé. But then Zakes walked in, and
Ntombi realised that this was no fairytale wedding
and she definitely wasn’t the princess. She was a
bridesmaid at her mother’s wedding to Zakes. The
dream had just turned into a terrible nightmare.
Her mother was smiling and kissing Zakes. He was
smiling that fake smile. Before she knew it her
mother was calling her to the bridal procession. Her
sister appeared in an identical pink dress. The whole
thing made Ntombi feel sick.
“What’s wrong, Ntombi?” Suddenly her mother had
the face of a witch. “Can’t you be happy for us?”
“Just wait.” Zakes gripped her arm and led her away
so her mother couldn’t hear what he was about to
say. His breath was warm and stank of beer as he
lowered his voice.“There’s no escaping from me
now,” he said. “You will do exactly as I say or there
will be trouble. I am the boss in your house.” He let
her go and she rubbed her arm; his fat fingers had
left marks on her skin. She watched as her mother
took Zakes’ arm and walked up the aisle and up the
stairs to the stage where a priest was waiting to
Ntombi had to do something to stop them – nobody
else was. She tried to run but her feet were glued to
the ground. She opened her mouth to scream but no
words came out. Zakes took the ring and was about
to slip it on her mother’s finger.
* * *
She must have made a noise when she woke up
because her mother was standing next to her bed.
“What’s the matter, baby girl?” she said. “Did you
have a bad dream?” She wasn’t a witch. She was the
loving, kind mother Ntombi had known before Zakes
All Ntombi could say was, “You came back.”
“Of course I came back. And I want to thank you for
cooking supper and looking after your sister last
night. I had a really good time with Zakes. You know
things are going very well with him. I wouldn’t be
“No,” Ntombi said quickly. So it was true he was
going to ask her to marry him.
“I was going to say, I wouldn’t be surprised if he
asks me to his end-of-year work party.”
“At the car dealership?” Ntombi asked warily. She
was sure there was no car dealership. Or else that it
was a front for something else that Zakes was up to.
Something illegal and dangerous. She had heard talk
in their neighbourhood that he was in some shady
business. Whenever his cell rang when she was
around, he switched it off without answering it. Once
he hadn’t seen her come up behind him while he was
talking, and he had shouted at her.
“Never do that again, sneaking up on me like that
when I’m on my cell.”
But her mother wouldn’t listen to the rumours. She
said that people just wanted to bad-mouth him
because he was successful.
“Zakes says it’s going to be the whole national team
of sales reps at some smart hotel. I can’t wait.” Her
mother sounded so proud of him. Ntombi’s heart
sank. Nothing had changed.
“Thanks for the tea,” was all she said.
“It’s a pleasure.” Her mother hesitated. Ntombi
waited. She knew what was coming.
“Zakes has invited me out tonight…”
“But Mama, you went out last night, and the night
“I know. But he wants me to meet a friend of his,
who could get me a job.”
“You have a job.”
“A better one. Please, Ntombi. I promise I’ll do
something nice with you on Saturday. I promise.”
Ntombi looked at her mother: she sounded like a
teenager herself, pleading like this to go out with her
boyfriend. And making promises she couldn’t keep.
* * *
As Ntombi watched her mother leave for work that
morning she was more worried than ever. What if she
gave up her job at the school for some false promise
by some sleazy friend of Zakes and burned all her
bridges? What if she landed up without any job? How
would they survive? No, she had to find a way to
make her mother see the truth about Zakes. But she
would need help. This was something she couldn’t
do on her own.
“Hurry up Zinzi. We’ll be late for the taxi,” Ntombi
called to her sister who was pulling her short hair
back into a little ponytail.
They had to run down the sandy track between the
prefab RDP houses, around the corner, past the
spaza shop and across the open stretch of ground
(where the council had put one swing, that was now
broken) to the taxi rank on the other side.
Mrs Thembeka who sold veggies near the taxi rank,
greeted Ntombi. “You girls are going to get fit the
way you have to run for your taxi every morning,” she
laughed. “Wait till the Olympics come to South
Africa. You’ll be ready.”
Ntombi was out of breath as she pushed Zinzi onto
the taxi in front of her. She gave the gaadjie her coins
and sat down.
There was a whistle from the back seat. Ntombi
usually avoided the older schoolboys who sat in a
row at the back. They were eighteen and had a
reputation as the ‘bad boys’ of Harmony High’s
matric year. But this morning she made the mistake
of turning around. She couldn’t tell who had whistled,
but the boy in the middle of the back row winked at
her. He then gave her such a smile that she couldn’t
help but smile in return, before turning away quickly
to look out the front window. She felt like everyone in
the taxi was staring at her and she wanted to shrink
under the seats. He was so good-looking and so
cute – that smile was hard to resist. At school she
had seen him at break time hanging out with his
friends down at the sports shed. His name was Mzi.
Asanda’s older sister Tilly had gone out with his
older brother Themba, when she was in Grade 12,
but it had ended badly. Really badly. Tilly had got
pregnant and Themba had denied that it was his
baby and had ignored her from then on.
“Those Mlongenis are no good,” her father used to
say. “Stay clear of them.” And then when Tilly got
pregnant, their dad threatened: “If I see any of you so
much as speaking to one of those boys you will not
be welcome in this house. You’ll be on your own. Do
you understand?” Ntombi and Zinzi had nodded in
silence. But where was their dad now? And was it
really fair to blame the younger brother for the older
brother’s behaviour. And here he was winking at her
– and so cute!
All these thoughts went racing through her mind as
the taxi hooted and screamed along in the fast lane.
Each day was a dice with death in these taxis, and
the music pumped so loudly it was giving Ntombi a
headache even before she got to school. This one
had gansta rap blasting out, an angry man’s voice
shouting and swearing, with the boys at the back
joining in the chorus.