Exclusive extract from The Beast

  

Exclusive extract from The Beast

Alexander Starritt's debut novel, The Beast, is a compelling satire of British tabloid newspapers in the era of facts that are anything but, and news that is denounced as fiction. Read on for an extract from this topical and urgent - but also very entertaining - novel.


TUESDAY

You know that feeling where everything suddenly seems more real than it did before? It struck Jeremy Underwood, a paunchy, slightly downtrodden sub-editor in his mid-forties, when he arrived back at the office from a week’s holiday and – while pausing outside to have a cigarette and adjust to the idea of re-entering the uproar within – noticed two figures hanging around the entrance, both of them draped in the lazy folds of rich black burqas.

He worked at a newspaper that in liberal London was a synonym for brazen bigotry, hypocrisy and enraged hatred of those on whose fears it fed; and that in the rest of England was bought and read every day by two million decent people. No name was emblazoned on the wall above its revolving doors. The entrance was functional, like the short gangplank and side door by which you board a huge transatlantic liner. But a pale clock face marked with Roman numerals was bracketed above it in an octagonal iron case, and the crown it wore was the paper’s name, hammered out in the heavy gothic type that adorned its masthead: The Daily Beast.

One of the burqa-draped figures pointed up at the building while they spoke in what Jeremy presumed was Arabic. Both bulged at the right-hand side, as if carrying something under their cloaks. Conscious of a slight acceleration in the labours of his tired, smoke-clogged heart, Jeremy remembered a story he’d worked on just before going away: a group of terrorists – how many? Four. Four terror suspects on bail – had escaped the oversight of the law by joining the crowd at their mosque, cutting off their electronic tags and leaving dressed in burqas.

The Beast’s leader column had been incensed by a police spokesman’s offhand remark that, even if the squad cars had arrived in time, they were hardly going to strip-search the lot of them. The column had excoriated ‘a country so enfeebled that its “authorities” are unwilling even to defend it’. The heads of the mosque and various Muslim community groups had been incensed in turn, and vowed that they would not stand for this harassment.

And now these two shapeless figures were here, on the Beast’s own doorstep, carrying something under their cloaks.

From deep within him emerged a memory of having been struck by this sort of shock once before. It had been when he was a cub reporter in Margate, long ago. He’d been in the cinema on a date, hypnotized by the huge lights and colours, when, with startling speed and size, a gargantuan black shape loomed across it. The illusion was ruptured and, with a flash of vertigo, he was pulled backwards into his surroundings of movie theatre, Margate, the rustle of hands in popcorn.

He’d flinched in his seat, and his date – one of the assistants on the paper – laughed at him, thinking he was clowning. It was just someone sticking a hand in front of the projector. But he’d been confident then, and young, and hadn’t minded her laughing. He’d actually clowned a little more, amusing them both; and, despite a lingering unease, he’d soon slipped back into the movie.

Now, as he stood outside the Beast’s offices, the two black-clad figures gave him that same vertiginous shock. Around them all was normal: the workaday lunchtime backdrop was going on with its business. But they were here. He kept smoking, trying not to give away that he’d noticed them, and realized that his fingertips were trembling. He’d drunk half a litre of coffee in the car. Were they trembling more than usual?

He listened in, but couldn’t understand what they were saying. They continued to talk. And as he watched them, the shock receded. He told himself he was being paranoid, his perceptions warped by too many years of news. They were doubtless just two perfectly ordinary Muslim women dressed in burqas. Bombs and terrorists might appear in some places, but what he saw before him was the entrance to the paper’s offices after a week off, spent with his wife in Dublin. He’d felt almost free over there, without his daughters or any obligation to work; and, even though Louise had humiliatingly made him wear a bum bag for fear of pickpockets, he’d been lifted by a certain lightness that was still with him.

Implicit beyond the entrance was his mind’s habitual setting: the shift pattern and the late finish; the print deadline and the pension plan; the front bench and the back bench; the commute and the catchment area. Jeremy decided to think no more about terrorists, and pressed the stub of his cigarette into the soil of the raised flowerbed beside him. Then looked at the rotating doors. On every panel was stamped ‘Cardholders Only’. His card was in his pocket.

But he’d still not fully shaken off the feeling of disorientation, and to settle he addressed himself by his secret nickname, which he’d not told even his wife or his closest colleague and friend, Max. He spoke to himself in a needling but encouraging tone, the way he imagined a public-school games master might address a hopelessly un-athletic child. ‘Come on, Drudge. Come on, Drudgy. One foot after the other. Card out, through the door, up the escalator. You can manage that, can’t you?’ And up he went.


The Beast is available to request on NetGalley here


The Beast will be published by Apollo, an imprint of Head of Zeus, in hardback and ebook on the 7th September