Steve tip-toed barefoot into my shop; he was bleary eyed and disheveled. Clearly, he had just tumbled out of bed.
‘Hi mate…..got any milk?’
I pointed to the chiller at the back of the shop. The young man walked delicately over the wooden floor past the shelves of Whole Earth peanut butters, the sugar-free jams and the wheat-free pastas.
‘Any regular milk?….you know…not this organic stuff or soya?’
‘Sorry Steve, that’s all we have. Try Iceland across the road,’ I suggested.
‘Never mind. Can’t be arsed with that…I’ll take a pint of this……errmm, can I pay you later?’
‘Oh,’ he said turning back at the door, ‘there’s like a damp patch appearing on my ceiling…..just above the window. You couldn’t take a look at it and let the landlord know, could you?”
‘Will this evening be a good time?’ I enquired.
Steve, an under-graduate studying French at Goldsmiths College, lived in the flat behind my wholefood store. I was unofficial caretaker to the property, a role Mr Markovic had somehow tricked me into.
When I got to the flat that evening, Steve was out but Justine, his girl-friend, was there.
The flat was a mess. Clothes lay strewn all over the floor, you could barely see the carpet. There were trousers and shirts draped over the furniture too. Justine mumbled her apologies as she tried to clear up the cups with ancient tea dregs and cigarette butts in make shift ash trays. The smell of cigarette smoke pervaded the air. I peeked into the kitchen. The sink was piled high with unwashed crockery, saucepans and cutlery. A little saucepan with dried pasta sauce over the edge lay on the cooker which had not seen soap or scourer in a while. What could one expect anyway? It was a student flat after all.
By the exhausted sofa lay a beautiful guitar on a stand. I drew a finger across the strings and it sang its E tune.
‘Please don’t touch,’ admonished Justine. ‘Alex….I mean Steve, doesn’t like anyone touching his guitar.’
‘I didn’t know he played the guitar,’ I said.
‘Yeah, he’s in a band and all and they’re going to be famous, you know?’
‘Really?’ I said, disbelieving. ‘I hear him and his mates listening to ABBA over and over.’
She ignored my snide comment and pointed to the patch on the ceiling. Despite the landlord’s attempt to tart up the flat with his job lot of magnolia and white there was something Dickensian about it all. You could smell the damp and the mildew. A crop of mould had worked its way through the paint in areas. The chip wood wallpaper, designed to conceal bad plaster work, bubbled and peeled in places.
I gathered a pile of clothes sat on the chair and, handing them to the girl-friend, dragged it near the cracked sash window and stood on it. I put my palm against the patch on the ceiling. It was wet and cold.
‘Yes, looks like a slow leak. I think it might be a pin hole in the lead pipe leading to the tank just above here. These old lead pipes can’t take it any more. It’s happened before. I’ll let Mr Markovic know.’
‘Thanks Des, ‘ she said.
I picked my way past the detritus on the floor and left.
A week later Steve came over to thank me for sorting things out and to pay for the pint of milk. He was fresh this time and looked his handsome self in a casual sort of way, his shock of hair draped over his left eye.
‘By the way, who’s Alex? Justine…’
‘That’s my stage name,’ he interrupted. ‘It’s ….errrr…it’s a literary reference.’
‘Oh. She tells me you’re going to be famous. What’s your band called? ….so I can keep an eye out for your name in the bright lights,’ I said cynically.
‘Ya, I play bass. We’ve been signed up and everything. Big bucks coming our way and I can get a mortgage soon’.
Mortgage? Now that doesn’t sound like rock and roll to me, I thought. Was he being ironic?
As it turned out, Steve and his mates did go on to become world famous as a Britpop band. A couple of years after fame, world tours and fortune the band performed at the Goldsmith’s College union bar and half an hour after that gig Steve, aka Alex, came down to our shop and asked for me. I was not in. When I did get in my staff, mostly young Goldsmith’s students, were beside themselves and breathlessly asked: ‘How do you know Alex James of Blur? He came down here this afternoon specifically to see you!’
My minor claim to fame is that Alex James lived behind my store and he did say nice things about me in ‘Bit of A Blur’, his memoir, too. That’s my 5 minutes of fame done; another 10 to go, Warhol.
*NB: these scenes are composites.