how exactly would you define star quality?" Kate, pen poised over
her reporter's notebook, looked up at the new landlady of the Punch
Bowl. "When you're booking bands for your new Live Music Nites, I
It being morning, the pub was closed, but the door was open to
encourage fresh air inside. None, so far, had taken up the
invitation. A mixture of beer, stale cigarette smoke, and aging
gravy filled Kate's nostrils. However scintillating the Punch
Bowl's future—and Kate had just spent the best part of an
hour hearing it spelled out in unsparing detail—its present
looked and smelled the same as always. Even down to the usual fat
black fly, throwing itself halfheartedly against the grimy
Despite the new proprietress's plans for complete refurbishment, it
seemed unlikely, for the moment at least, that the Punch Bowl would
cease to be known as the Punch Out. This affectionate local
nickname arose from the pub's location as the last of many that
stood along the main drag of Southgate, thus forming the final stop
on the notorious drinking route known as the "Southgate Stagger."
By the time they reached it, the clientele were generally in a
Even the unusually bright day outside did not improve matters
inside. A brilliant beam of sun highlit the hideous patterned
carpet that had been there since time immemorial. It shone
pitilessly on sticky marks on tables and dust rising from red plush
banquettes whose gashes bled dirty yellow foam. All soon to be
replaced, apparently, by brass rails, colonial fans, and something
called "a fusion menu." Jolene Shaw's ambitions—as Kate was
now hearing—also included the launch of the Punch Out as a
showcase for local live music acts. The ones who had rehearsed,
that was, rather than the ones who staggered out after closing time
roaring "Four and Twenty Virgins."
"Star quality?" Jolene drew confidently on her cigarette. She was a
thick-nosed blonde of a certain age whose short skirt exposed an
acreage of bare thigh that looked as if you could strike a match on
it. "World's best at talent-spotting, me," she asserted. "Know
straight away, I do, whether they're going to be any good or
Kate was intrigued despite herself. "Really? So what's the magic
ingredient?" Talent-spotters, in her experience, were few and far
between in Slackmucklethwaite; no one, at least, had spotted her
genius as a journalist yet. It would be interesting to know what
the town's answer to Simon Cowell thought constituted star
"Good looks?" Kate pressed. "Great songs? Stage presence?
Um...Keeping in tune?"
Jolene raised her eyebrows. "Round 'ere? You're joking, aren't you,
"Originality?" Kate thought of Darren the junior reporter's rock
band. Original was one way of describing them. Perhaps the only
Jolene shook her choppily cut yellow head which, stylistically
speaking, occupied the midpoint between Anthea Turner and Joan of
Arc at the stake. "No. What it all boils down to is whether they
stand up or not."
Kate's pencil dropped out of her fingers. "Stand up?"
"That's right. Bands what sit down look borin' and aren't as easy
to see in a pub. So the first thing I ask 'em when I'm booking
'em—even before I've asked 'em what sort of music they
play—is 'can you stand up?'"
You had to laugh, Kate reflected as she left the Punch Out. Even if
you sometimes felt like doing the exact opposite. After all, it
wasn't as if what had just happened was unusual. Barely a day went
by in the Slackmucklethwaite Mercury—locally known as the
Mockery—without some scarcely credible incident. In last
week's edition, for instance, the are you an animal lover? headline
had provoked complaints from readers about the media's obsession
with sex, despite its being intended to drum up volunteers for the
neighborhood dog shelter.
Jolene Shaw's intention of staging the local equivalent of American
Idol rang warning bells in itself. Art Beat, the Mercury's culture
section, was, after all, no stranger to controversy. Only recently
had the furor caused by Kate's coverage of the Slackmucklethwaite
Players' production of Romeo and Juliet begun to subside. That the
role of fourteen-year-old Juliet had been taken by the Players'
customary leading lady, fiftysomething chairwoman Gladys Arkwright,
had caused a mild sensation among the audience. "That Gladys
Arkwright may be no Gwyneth Paltrow, but she sure as 'eck nows 'ow
to lean over a balcony," Alderman Bracegirdle was heard to remark
appreciatively afterward. The sentence had ended up as the final
line of Kate's review, with disastrous consequences. However
exemplary Gladys Arkwright's balcony skills, she was not noted for
her sense of humor. And the Mercury's editor had temporarily lost
his too, after Gladys sought exemplary libel damages in the county
Oh well, Kate thought, dropping into the front seat of her battered
Peugeot, Mrs. Shaw's stand-up rule was definitely good news for her
colleague Darren. His band, which had been having trouble getting
bookings, must at least have mastered the art of balancing on two
legs. Or so one would have thought.
Jolene's last words grated in her ear. "I'm expecting a good
write-up in t'Mockery, you know. Don't forget that quarter-page ad
for t'Punch Bowl I've taken out."
If only, Kate thought, she could forget. Since the recent takeover
of the paper by tycoon Peter Hardstone, extremely rich, extremely
unpleasant, and clearly intending to squeeze the 249-year-old
Mercury until its pips squeaked, advertisements had become far more
important than editorial. Editorial had, in fact, become
advertorial: flattering pieces supporting ad space bought by local
businesses such as Jolene Shaw's. Or the newly opened Use Your
Noodle, self-styled Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World, which
had recently fired up its woks in one of Slackmucklethwaite's many
former Methodist chapels.
While the restaurant's popularity among the post-pub crowd had been
instant and immense, the transformation of the vast, pew-lined,
Palladian-fronted temple into a pink-tableclothed Peking Duck
palace had not been to the taste of older readers. Nor had their
remarks been to the taste of Peter Hardstone. Weeks of unfavorable
comment on the Mercury's letters pages had ended, not in victory
for the complainants, but in the axing of the page altogether. A
shame, Kate thought, that a forum whose first letters had condemned
the Black Hole of Calcutta should be brought down over a row about
black bean sauce.
She rummaged amid the flotsam and jetsam of the passenger seat for
the scribbled-in notebook that served as her reporting diary. Next
up was the Women's Institute Lunch followed by—joy of
joys—a date with Alderman Ernest Fartown, president of the
local Chamber of Commerce. She groaned. Admittedly, the Mockery
hadn't been her first choice of employer. Long ago, having scored
the county's second-top marks in French A-level, she had dreamed of
a job simultaneously translating at the United Nations. Yet the
cost of the necessary four-year-degree course was out of the
question—the thought of plunging Mum and Dad thousands of
pounds into debt was simply untenable, although, self-sacrificing
to the last, they had not tried to influence her decision. Which
had been, in the end, to do a "media module" at a nearby community
college and try for a job on the Mercury. She had kept up her
French as best she could, although admittedly there wasn't much
call for it in Slackmucklethwaite. Or on the Mercury, come to
But she had been thrilled to get the Mercury job at the time.
Almost as much as the UN, newspapers had seemed full of potential.
The gateway to a wider, more exciting world. It seemed incredible
that, four years later, this was as far as her journalistic career
had got. She could be interviewing the president of the United
States by now, rather than that of the Chamber of Commerce. Or be
working on a national paper in some capacity. That was the point of
provincial papers, wasn't it? You learned your trade, then went to
ply it in the capital. Countless ambitious young provincial
journalists had gone on to glory this way.
But she had been unable to follow them. Few of the London papers
she had applied to had bothered to reply, and those that did said
no. This despite the fact that
her—literally—groundbreaking story on what had been
unearthed during the digging up of the school drains had catapulted
her on the long list for the What the (Local) Papers Say
Investigative Local Journalist of the Year Awards. Her report on
how the children had gone into the classroom waving femurs from a
forgotten, ancient part of the nearby churchyard had been her
finest professional hour so far. Which, possibly, summed it all
The offices of the Mercury occupied the ground floor of a former
butcher's shop. Although the cleavers, mincers, and chopping blocks
were long gone, an odd smell was detectable on occasion,
particularly in hot weather. Other reminders of the shop's former
usage were the legends etched indelibly into the glass of the large
front window—Black Fat, Weasand, and Pig Bag, all referring
to varieties of tripe. These delicacies were now replaced in the
window by curl-edged, sun-faded shots of local people and events
taken by the paper's veteran photographer Colin and published in
various issues of the Mercury. Each carried a small identification
number in case—this being the main purpose of the
display—anyone wanted to buy them. No one ever did.
Darren's skinny frame was hunched over his desk as Kate entered. He
jumped slightly, sending jewelry rattling all over his body.
Earlobes, neck, wrists, and a variety of nose rings tinkled like
"Only me." Kate grinned, throwing her leather jacket in the
direction of the coat stand and feeling disproportionately
delighted when it landed on a hook.
"Hello, gorgeous," the junior reporter said, smiling. That he
really found her gorgeous Kate doubted: Darren's sexuality was a
closely guarded secret even from her. But it was nice of him to say
it. Especially as she had been wondering lately whether her
decision to grow out her highlights was the right one. Years of
being an assisted blonde dyed hard.
"No, honestly, keep it as it is—the natural look suits you,"
Darren advised. "You've got lovely skin and those big blue
eyes—pale brown hair goes really well with it. It is sort of
mousy, yes. But glamorous mouse."
"Yeah. And you hardly need any makeup—just a touch of mascara
on those long lashes of yours. Bit of lippy and you're done."
Darren, it had to be said, was an unlikely advocate of the natural
look. He had lashings of mascara and a lot of lippy on today;
lipstick that was, moreover, black. His hair stood erect in shining
purple-black spikes that contrasted with his dead-white face. Gusts
of patchouli wafted from his tight black jeans and shirt whenever
he moved. His boots were large, black and, like his belt, covered
in silver studs and chains.
Walking through the town in full Goth rig was something only one
with the junior reporter's love of drama and unstoppable belief
that stardom was just around the corner could possibly have
contemplated. Especially as, in Darren's case, what was usually
just around the corner was a group of youths shouting
Good old Darren. Hardworking, clever, humorous and, unlike certain
of his predecessors, completely without issues about donating to
the office tea-bag fund.
Kate smiled at him. "So what did I miss? What happened while I was
"Believe it or not, something actually did happen for once."
"Let me guess. Hold the front page, there's a new bus timetable
just come out?"
"Better than that, even. Slackmucklethwaite's own Beverly Hills has
disappeared down a huge hole."
"What? Slack Palisades, you mean?" Kate's eyes widened. This really
was a surprise. The luxury development of Slack Palisades, ten
miles west of Slackmucklethwaite, with its brick drives, plastic
porticos, "heritage" carriage lamps, and optional helicopter
landing pads had appeared almost overnight as it was. That it had
disappeared in the course of a morning seemed appropriate, if
"But Peter Hardstone lives in Slack Palisades," Kate remembered. A
thrilling possibility gripped her. "He's not fallen down this hole
as well, has he?"
Darren shook his head. "'Fraid not. There haven't been any
casualties at all, amazingly. Apart from people's egos and
properties. Here's my report. I've just finished." He pushed it
toward her. Kate took it and read.
Azur Like It
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Plume
- ISBN-10: 0452285178
- ISBN-13: 9780452285170