I wake up at 4am unable to breathe as usual and I check my phone to see if Liam Gallagher has texted me back, which he hasn’t. I take my inhaler and shoot four puffs into my mouth. I’m supposed to take two puffs with two short, sharp inhales, which right now would be like telling someone with two broken legs crawling on the floor to jump twice, just two little jumps, and their legs will be fixed. All I can do is rasp, unwillingly slow.
I heard a doctor once describe having asthma as being like breathing through a straw. Breathing through a straw sounds fine, lovely even: measured and calm. You will breathe as long as you wait. This is actually like someone pinching the top of your lungs with their fist, like a baby grips a finger; when you start to clasp it off you realise babies are capable of more than you thought.
Once I can breathe a little I check my phone again. I open the messages app in case Liam did write back and I’ve forgotten reading the text in my sleep. There’s no reply below the last message I sent him.
Baby: Can’t wait to wake up at 5am, can’t wait to speak to you xxx
Usually after an asthma attack I go back to sleep, but I’m meeting with Liam on Skype at five and I’m afraid if I lie down now I may sleep through my alarm. I turn the light on, but the brightness is abrasive so early in the morning so I switch it off and stay in the dark. I sign on to Skype in case Liam signs on early too. It’s only 3pm in Melbourne, eleven hours ahead of London.
At 4:20 I check to see if he’s logged on, knowing he won’t be. At 4:40 I check not expecting him to be, but hoping maybe. Same again at 4:50. At 5 and 5:05 I check hopefully and when I’m disappointed I go to the kitchen to make coffee. I take my time measuring and weighing the beans and water, perfecting my bloom technique, so by the time I’m finished it’s 5:15 and I run back to my computer hoping to find him waiting. From 5:15 to 5:35 I stare at the Skype homepage and sip my coffee. Then I go to wee and then I stare again until 6. At 6 I send Liam a message.
Baby: Where are you?
Before I lie back down to sleep I take two puffs of my inhaler in the hope that it will prevent more disruptive wheezing, which it never does, and I play Spiceworld quietly from my laptop. I wouldn’t usually listen to the Spice Girls, I’d rather anything else outside of work, but their music has become like white noise to me now. It’s meditative, which I need because it takes so long to get back to sleep these days. I need to be calm.
When I woke up again today I had four messages from Liam.
Liam Gallagher: Sorry
Ended up going to a doof along Merri Creek Friday night
Then Millie invited everyone back to her house
Only just got home now
I’d replied, but by then he was asleep himself, presumably, so I left to do London for another day. There’s wifi at the museum now so I write to him again.
Baby: Hey, you there?
Liam Gallagher: Hey baby
He calls me Baby because I play Baby Spice in the band. It’s a term of endearment, but not in the same way that most people use the word.
Baby: How are you?
Liam Gallagher: Good … You?
Baby: Still tired … How was last night?
Liam Gallagher: Fun
Baby: Was it a big night?
Liam Gallagher: Sort of. After a while Millie started to really piss me off so I went home.
Liam spends a lot of time with his friend Millie, more time than with me, he also complains about her constantly. She’s in a band too. An all-girl band with three tambourine players. They sing about being naked outdoors and use hula hoops on stage. The first time I saw them I told Liam it was inappropriate for a group of white girls to wear bindis on stage (big, glittery bindis) and he told me culture has always evolved and grown with other people’s interpretations of it and that cultural appropriation was stifling and I'm white girl anyway, I don’t know what’s racist.
Later that night I heard him across the band room yelling at Millie, “What the fuck are you wearing this for, you’re not Hindu you racist bitch!”
Liam Gallagher: I wish we’d stayed up longer the other
night before you left. I miss you
Baby: Miss you too
He’s always loving when he’s hungover and he always wants to have sex. He’s most loving when he wants to have sex.
Liam Gallagher: But what are you doing on the internet?
Go out and see the world!
Baby: I am
I’m lying on a couch in a walkway space between two exhibits at the Tate Modern. When people walk by they stare at me and I wonder if they think I’m an artwork. Then I wonder if that’s what they’re meant to be thinking. Or am I meant to be thinking about them thinking that?
Before I messaged Liam I was lying with my eyes closed, beginning to fall asleep but not falling asleep. This is what I like about jetlag – the ability to access this state. The darkness where your eyelids are too heavy to lift and you can hear what’s around you, but it’s as though it’s underwater. Phrases you assume are real – Did you notice O’Keefe’s preoccupation with female genitalia? And non-sequiturs – Welcome to Venus, I think you’ll find it’s a bit like China. Not dreams, because you’re not asleep, but snippets of them; being about to fall asleep, on the edge. Despite the accompanying nausea, I can’t remember feeling this relaxed for almost a year.
Baby: I just got wifi at the Tate, but I’m going to head out
to meet Baby Spice in a minute. Will you be home tonight if
I call you?
Liam Gallagher: I’m supposed to be going to Millie’s gig, but I also can’t be fucked putting up with her.
Baby: So you will be home?
Liam Gallagher: Maybe.
Baby: I’ll need to stay awake until late if we wanna skype and I’m still jetlagged … Can I get something more definite than maybe?
Liam Gallagher: Definitely maybe.
I’m meeting Baby Spice in Brixton, meaning I need to go under London to get over to its other side. The city is not like I’d envisaged. Big Ben is here and the red buses are too, but never without bus-sized ads for tourism or beauty products. And there are so many bridges crossing the river, I don’t even know which one London Bridge is. It feels like an airport – a big place filled with big machinery, high-end retail, chain restaurants and interminable ads. The tube is easy enough to understand but navigating the public transport system hasn’t given me bearing in the city itself. After sitting in a tunnel of darkness you pop up out of a hole without any idea of what path you took. North, south, east, west, who cares anyway it all looks the same – grey. I know it’s a literary cliché for dreariness, but it is grey here. Grey roads, grey bricks, grey clothes, and black cabs. The city is a cliché, but not in the way I’d expected. Even the green patches are ugly – too square, not enough plants.
Before I met him, Liam lived in Sydney and he likes to describe living in the city of great beaches and terrible bars and restaurants as being like “dating a hot girl with a bad personality.” London, I think, is the opposite – it’s smart here, there are famous universities and theatres and huge galleries. It’s never boring, but it is ugly.
At least the weather is better than expected. It’s cold and the air is harsh on my lungs. I walk around with my hands in my coat pockets, my right hand cradling my inhaler. But it’s sunny. I hadn’t thought I’d need sunglasses and I’ve been squinting since I arrived. Frequently I shield my eyes and tilt my head down or away, like I’m feigning shock or disgust, like London is something I don’t want to look at. If I was Kate Middleton the paparazzi could snap me and make up profitable stories about my marriage.
The walls inside Brixton’s Pie & Mash shop are covered in dark green tiles. It looks like a swimming pool, like I should be holding my breath in here.
I look around for Baby Spice but can’t see her. Nobody here is on their own but me. I check our emails again to make sure I’m in the right place. Then I take a seat and wait. There are booths here, but also a long bar with stools, even though they sell pies not beers.
I scroll the news on my phone and see everyone at home is sharing articles about a state-wide asthma attack in Victoria. It’s the start of summer there and recently they had the first heat wave. When the cool change happened, the wind blew around the grass and pollen from spring and now people can’t breathe; some people have died. It makes complete sense, lots of pollen plus lots of wind, and yet it’s weird that so many people almost dropped dead from asthma. People have asthma every day. I have asthma every day. But I’m safe here; the danger is at home.
I take my inhaler from my pocket now and have a puff. Ventolin is sweeter in England and it’s not called that, it’s called Salamol.
Baby Spice stands close to my chair. She doesn’t hold out her hand to shake, but she is very smiley. We introduce ourselves – her real name is Veronica. She says to call her Ronnie. She doesn’t take a seat, but stands staring at me, still smiling.
“Are you happy to sit here?” I ask. “Oh, yeah,” she looks to the seat and back to me and she giggles. She doesn’t take the seat, but stands staring at me, still smiling.
“Or would you prefer to sit in one of the booths?” I ask. I’m not sure why she’s not sitting down.
“Oh, I love booths!” She giggles again and claps her hands together once.
I stand and walk with her to a booth. Veronica is wearing denim overalls with a red T-shirt and matching red scrunchie that holds a ponytail placed high and slightly off centre, a white knitted cardigan and white bobby socks.
Veronica giggles when we take our seats in the booth. She giggles a lot, but doesn’t say much. It’s really fucking awkward and so once we’ve ordered I get straight to it.
“So I’m going to start recording now, is that ok?”
She giggles. I set my phone to record.
“Girlies interview with Ronnie AKA Baby Spice from Britain’s number one Spice Girls tribute act,” I pause unsure what to make up next, “2pm Wednesday, September 20.”
“It’s so cool that your work pays for you to come all the way to London.”
“We empower young women,” I say, as I pretend to make sure the sound check worked. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t record at all. The thought that an Australian teen magazine today would care about the Spice Girls, let alone a tribute act, let alone a British tribute act, or that a print mag aimed at teens would have enough money to fly me to London, is completely bogus. But I don’t tell her this, after all it is the lie I created and told to justify my being here.
London had been Liam’s idea originally. He was planning to come with Craig. Craig plays Noel in their band and they’d intended to run around England in character. It had also been Liam’s suggestion that I join them. He’d said it offhandedly once, but then reiterated the invitation when I asked a few weeks later if it was still cool that I came. “Of course, Baby, come,” he’d said.
Two weeks after saying that Liam quit his job at a mail warehouse that had paid fifty dollars an hour.
“So how are you going to afford London now?” I’d asked. We were in my kitchen making pizzas. Sticky spots of uncooked dough covered my hands like welts.
“I don’t think I’m going anymore. I told Craig I think we should save the money and do an international tour next year,” Liam had said. I was silent, my hands held limply in front of my dirty apron.
An Australian Oasis cover band doing a European tour doesn’t make any sense. While Oasis don’t tour anymore, both the real Gallagher brothers do still play in other bands in London and also there would be an English Oasis tribute act, probably one with better accents.
“But you should still go,” Liam had added, and then, “Now, how the hell do we get to the heart of this thing?” He was holding a fresh artichoke, it looked like a bommy knocker in his hand. I started washing up at the kitchen sink, the image of a woman as a bad man sees her.
Veronica orders double pie, double mash, which I hadn’t thought would be just what it sounds like – she’s eating two pies and two piles of mash potato. It’s a lot of food and she eats like she’s been starving. She holds her plate up above the table with one hand and jams her fork hard on the plate with the other. She takes new forkfuls even when her mouth is full, piling it in. I’m hopeful for a moment that she’s making a statement against dinner etiquette. A statement against women always being polite.
“So, how do you think the Spice Girls’ particular kind of feminism sits with modern feminist discussions today?”
“Beyoncé is a feminist.” She licks her fork on both sides.
“Yeah. And people are cynical about her being only Pop-Feminist. Which you would have to say is the Spice Girls. Back in the day they had a deodorant line in Australia, so it was like feminism in a can for four dollars ninety-five. But, I really think looking back now they were an important part of the feminist movement.”
“Oh yeah. The Spice Girls will be remembered forever.”
I wait for her to elaborate, but she just keeps eating and so I plough on. If I actually had to write this up for the magazine I’d be getting pissed off.
“And like everyone always says the Sleater-Kinney thing. Like, that they were the first real feminist band and Spice ripped that off and gave it tits and a mini skirt. But I just think the comparison is unfair and to hold the Girls to that standard is… It’s like,” I point my fork at Veronica, “when I was in primary school I didn’t want to proclaim I was feminist and I didn’t want hairy underarms—”
“Maybe I needed that watered down commercial feminism to help get me to this point.”
“I thought you played Baby in your band too?”
“Yeah, I do.”
We eat in silence for a bit. The sides of mash are spherical balls, as though they were served from an icecream scoop. Baby takes one and puts the entire ball of mash in her mouth. Gravy dribbles over her chin and she opens her eyes wide and makes an ‘mmm’ noise, maybe because her mash tastes good or maybe to fill the silence. I turn away and stare at the dark green tiles on the wall next to me.
“I don’t think enough people appreciate how much joy the Spice Girls brought to the world.” I always say this. I said it to Liam the first night we met when we shared our experiences of being in tribute bands and began what we would later refer to as falling in love. It is real joy they brought, not just girl power; although girl power too.
She drags her fork over her plate, shovelling together her last, small forkfuls of mash and vinegar.
“So, do you ever consider expanding your career by doing Baby’s solo stuff?” I ask her.
“Oh yes,” she says. Finally, she puts her fork down. She wipes both her hands over her face, top to bottom, then places them one on top of the other on the table.
“Remind me, what was Baby Spice’s main solo hit again?”
“What took you so long?” she sings. “What took you all night? What took you forever to see I’m right? You know I treat you so good.” She sways her head side-to-side, languidly, as she sings and when she finishes she doesn’t giggle. She looks serious.
Liam always says the most important part of a song is the lyrics.
Once we’ve said goodbye I walk two blocks and stop at the first pub I see. I take a seat, order a stout and message Liam.
Baby: I’ve got time to kill before the gig and there’s wifi at the pub. How are you?
By telling him I’m waiting he will know I’m not just hanging out to speak to him, but am out doing things and just in the middle of one now and happen to be able to talk. He won’t tell me to go out and see London.
Liam Gallagher: Not good I’m bored
I guess he’s slept since I last spoke to him and he’s no longer hungover, therefore no longer horny, therefore no longer loving.
Baby: Maybe jack off?
That’s a joke, I’m trying to be cute.
Liam Gallagher: Haha
That’s forced laughter. Ha! Or Hahahahaha would be real laughter.
I start to type several things, but given Liam’s blank response anything I bring up now will be seem like it’s out of nowhere. There are ellipses next to both Liam’s and my name on the screen and they ripple as we type. The small dots move in Mexican waves … and again, and again, but despite all the waving, neither of us sends a message.
Baby: That’s so crazy about all those asthma attacks
Liam’s ellipses ripple and then disappear; no message.
I look around the bar for something to talk about. It’s more cliché England here, as in the good cliché – a squat brick building with large windows, it’s cute. There is a winding staircase with a sign, Theatre upstairs, and a pointing arrow. It’s English, with just sprinklings from the rest of the world – there are craft beers on tap and a chalkboard advertising Free Wi-Fi and happy hour prices for different Spritzers, spelled Spritz.
Baby: British Baby Spice was so fucked, by the way.
Liam Gallagher: Why?
Baby: She didn’t know who Sleater-Kinney were
Liam Gallagher: So?
Baby: She doesn’t know anything about the Spice Girls
Liam Gallagher: Maybe she just likes the songs
Baby: It’s not about that, it’s about Girl Power!
That’s a Mel B quote. She said it to an American radio presenter when he asked her if the Girls hooked up with men when they were touring.
Liam Gallagher: Not everyone understands feminism like you do
He always disagrees with me; he says it makes better conversation, which is true. Talking would be boring if we just nodded along.
Liam Gallagher: I gotta go now. Say Hi to Lizzie for me!
He’s talking about the Queen, it’s one of our jokes.
I do know that my boyfriend’s an arsehole by the way. In case you were applauding yourself on your ability to read subtext. In case you thought noticing the intricacies of Liam’s meanness was your ability to read foreshadowing in literature. I’m including them because I’m aware my boyfriend kind of hates me. So you can stop jacking off over your own perceptiveness. Or don’t. Rub yourself silly, genius.
You know I used to have pit hair before I started playing Baby Spice? Hairs so long they curled around one another; a tangled forest under my arms. I wore sleeveless tops and even fiddled with it on public transport. This—waiting all day to get a message from a guy whose response is to shut me down—this wasn’t meant to be me.
This is an excerpt of a piece that appears in full in The Lifted Brow #38. Get your copy here.
Allee Richards is a playwright and short fiction writer from Melbourne. Her next play, Survival, is currently on at La Mama Theatre.