Claire Mabey reflects on the legacy of the Spice Girls, and the female ghosts in her family.
The first time I heard the Spice Girls was at my 16-year-old cousin’s funeral. They played ‘Wannabe’ as her casket was carried out of the Catholic church in Pahiatua. It was the first time I remember seeing adults cry and the first time I saw teenagers cry. At the wake I asked another cousin – the youngest of the four siblings, who is the same age as me, we would have been about 10 years old – what it felt like to no longer have a sister. It was the first time I heard the phrase “everything feels like a dream” in real life. We played on the trampoline outside.
Before the drive home Dad scoured Pahiatua for a Spice Girls CD for the car. I think he found it at the gas station. I was excited to hear that song again. The one that had electrified me so unexpectedly. He ejected Michael Jackson and played SPICE front to back like a nine-year-old who’d just discovered the obsession of the year.
‘Great tune, guys!’ He nodded feverishly over at my mum in the passenger seat. She nodded, though from where I was, in the back seat with a view between them, I suspected she didn’t really agree.
If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends
Make it last forever, friendship never ends
It was as though I’d taken my first drug. The infectious energy worked its way into the memories of the scenes we’d just lived through. We had known the body in the coffin so well, we recognised that she was no longer there. The coffin was filled with gifts to take with her, like the mugs my siblings painted. One of my uncles had written “Say hi to John Lennon for me” on the lid of the casket. People could still laugh, even her mum. But I also remember the way my aunty folded down and sank to the ground, with a sound that is etched into a corner of my brain as entirely unique, as the coffin was lowered. My cousin was one of those special people. Not because of the death, but before that, in life she was magnetic. Always the favourite with the small ones in the family, she had a willingness to laugh and an ease with the people around her, whoever they might be. There was cheek without malice and wit without a trace of cruelty. At times, in our family, I could detect the old bruises among the adults and swords could fly above our heads. But between us, the kids, my cousin was the centre of a warm and easy companionship. She was a singer, too, and known in the country-music world – of which I got a glimpse once and was startled by everything. The songs, the makeup and costumes, the sprawling car-boot sale that I am sure I remember running a ring around the venue, like an eclectic hug. I think my aunty bought a plate. My cousin sang better than I ever knew a real person could sing. She would have been a good Spice Girl. Kind of a mix between Posh and Baby Spice, but she embodied them all.
The car trips between Tauranga and Pahiatua always felt like a stifling form of forever. My sister’s head lolling between my brother’s and my shoulders as we tossed her back and forth. The closeness irritated me. I could never sleep well against the car door and on rollercoaster roads, as we called them, my head would blur and my stomach would undulate until saliva filled my mouth and I’d beg for us to stop. Sometimes I’d get to sit in the front seat but this was rare and only after an actual spew. Our parents got us salt-and-vinegar chips to keep us good, and Dad would usually play the songs I liked. ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies, ‘Silence is Golden’ by the Tremeloes, and Beatles album after Beatles album.
On that long drive home after the funeral, the old songs were abandoned and ‘Wannabe’ became a catalyst for the emergence of my pre-adolescent self.
On that long drive home after the funeral, the old songs were abandoned and ‘Wannabe’ became a catalyst for the emergence of my pre-adolescent self. This music was of my time. They were my girls. The energy pulsed through me and the pop hooks stuck fast and forever.
Back at school I hustled my friends into a Spice Girls dance troupe. There were tensions over who was going to be which Spice. Determined not to be Ginger simply on account of my red hair, I demanded Scary, and Sean got his wish and nabbed Baby. Julia, Tryna and Sarah fell into Posh, Sporty and, finally, a Ginger (due more to her conciliatory nature than any real desire). We performed for our school, our parents, ourselves. We begged, daily, for platform boots and for the stuff from the two-dollar shop that looked like mascara but was for dragging hyper-synthetic magenta or royal-blue streaks through your locks.
At night time I would become scared of ghosts. I worried about visitations. My brother told me years later that he was the same. Our rooms were next door to each other; both of us lying stiffly in our beds watching and waiting. At a certain time each night, a shadow was cast in the shape of the Virgin Mary directly above my bed. It was all to do with the specific angles and the waning light, but still. It looked like the Virgin Mary and I knew my family had a history of dealing with her. My nana had told me, while we were down in Pahiatua for my cousin, that the Virgin had come to her after her own daughter had died of cancer when she was just eleven. She told me this the night after my cousin’s funeral. For days, since the accident, my nana said, she thought the dog was sleeping on the end of her bed at night. She could feel its warm, lumpy body near her feet. But, she said, last night there was nothing there. It was your cousin!, she said, waiting with her until the funeral. And now, she said, she’s with all the rest of them in heaven.
And now, she said, she’s with all the rest of them in heaven.
At the time I was happy to be told about our ghosts. Nana was magnetic in the same way my cousin had been. She was ageless. The most ageless person I’ve ever met. You could tell that the person she was did not match the body she was in. I was comforted by her ghost stories in Pahiatua, but at home I silently begged for the ghosts to appear elsewhere. I did not welcome them. I did not want them to come anywhere near me. After confessing my worry to my mum, she said I’d be lucky if the Virgin were to choose me to visit. She is a Catholic. And she didn’t indulge in Unsolved Mysteries with us. Unsolved Mysteries exacerbated every fear I had about ghosts, UFOs, and murderers on the loose.
The Spice Girls continued to be the soundtrack of bright days. We pranced and cartwheeled and continuously re-categorised ourselves depending on our vibes; Sporty one day, Scary the next. I had a thousand posters, went to the Spice World movie three times, and have harboured a love for Richard E Grant ever since. The movie somewhat cured me of my fear of aliens: in the movie, when a tremendous UFO descends in a dark and spooky wood, four weird little alien mega-fans pinch Scary Spice’s boob and make Ginger kiss one of them. I knew I could deal with that, because I hardly had any boob to pinch and kissing didn’t look as complicated as I thought it might be.
Only a few days ago, at a huge, probably inappropriate (given the pandemic), industry awards party, a swathe of youngish professionals got stuck into an open bar. After the formalities, a sequined band came out and performed covers. My colleagues and I – many of us tired mums, always sick with something – I got up and danced, hard. ‘Wannabe’ came on and the energy levelled up into something else. The ghosts of our girl-selves were suddenly right there. We eyeballed each other, articulating every single lyric. We slam, slam, slam, slammed. Slammed our bodies down and wound them all around.
Then I left the party. On that high. The Spice high. I walked along the waterfront shrouded in an aura of peace signs and great legs and good memories. I thought about my cousin and my nana and her lost daughter, and my nana’s own perpetually young mother, too. There are a lot of female ghosts in my family. I swear they have saved me from untimely accidents a few times now. Once, on a long car trip, some force beyond anything I can explain prevented us from swerving off the road. Another time, very recently, I stepped out to cross Ghuznee Street and missed being hit by a car by less than a hair’s breadth. When I was sick in hospital with a premature baby, machines and midwives monitoring us every hour, I had waking dreams of my nana talking to me again. She had had nine babies, after all. I welcome their ghosts now. Perhaps our ancestor, the one whose daughter died on the boat that got us here, is with them too. That would make a power troupe of five.
Whenever I get sad about our history of losing people too early, I watch the ‘Wannabe’ video and get gladder. Scary, Sporty, Ginger, Posh and Baby Spice cavort through St Pancras Renaissance Hotel ruffling up the rich and the religious with their energy and their mischief. They upend papers and cuff at stiff hair-dos like joyous poltergeists ushering in a new wave of youthful pop feminism.
May they haunt us forever.
Claire Mabey is the Director of Verb Festival in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, whose 2022 programme has just been announced. Check it out here, running 2 – 6 Nov.
This piece is featured as part of Issue 06: Vibe Shift, guest-edited by Tayi Tibble. Click here to read more essays in the series.
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