Extract: John King’s ‘The Beasts of Brussels’ from The Seal Club

The Beasts of Brussels’ is one third of The Seal Club, a three-novella collection that includes ‘Those Darker Sayings’ by Alan Warner (Morven Callar) and ‘The Providers’ by Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting). Introduced by Football Factory author John King, read an extract from ‘The Beasts of Brussels’ below.

England football supporters fill the bars of Brussels and meet the locals; one man sets off on a mission to collect a mystery package; a gentle soul is attacked and a childhood incident replays; a small band of purists crosses Germany the hard way; a child goes missing and his family fears the worst; barge-owner Merlin introduces the England boys to a goat called Gary; while a pair of media professionals sit in judgement and plot their next career moves.

New technologies pump out new slogans, but the same people are still in charge and the old prejudices remain. The search for the real beasts of the story begins…

Robert Marsh blushed as the cocktail connected, its schnapps-cognac mix stirring his emotions, crushed ice and freshly squeezed lemon cooling outright passion. The Spaak Salutation boosted his mood and a ball of righteousness formed as he watched events unfold in the street outside. He knew he couldn’t become too involved in the violence, instead closed his eyes and tried to lose himself in ‘Ode To Joy’, which was playing softly in the hotel bar and lobby. His skin tingled. Power was definitely an aphrodisiac.

He had been living in Brussels for three years, and while he enjoyed the trips to Strasbourg and Luxembourg, this was his favourite of the three governmental cities. From the drink in his hand to the choice of composer to the grand ambition that elevated the city above its inconsequential past, the European Union was always on his mind. He was proud of the part he was playing in the move towards a single state, felt that unification couldn’t happen without him, yet he was a humble man, fully aware that he was but one individual in a long line of visionaries. The same high ideals had linked emperors, kings, politicians, priests, philosophers, merchants and artists across the centuries, but now the dream was under threat. Just as importantly, so was his career.

It had been an incredibly stressful morning and Robert was in dire need of this drink and the chance to sit on his own and regroup. His meeting with Clive Simmons may have been conducted in a spirit of solidarity, but the brutal truth was that if Brexit went ahead he would be looking for a job. Robert had plans to start his own agency, it was true, but that was a long-term project. It was far too soon, needed a healthy contract in place, and there was also the small matter of the political goodwill involved. Leaving the EU would be a disaster, yet Simmons was determined to remain optimistic, and so must he. It was time to think of himself and enjoy some downtime.

As a massive footie fan, Robert was looking forward to the Belgium–England game. There was a drawback in that England brought a heavy-drinking following in their wake, and among this number were many violent thugs, but he refused to stay at home and let the hooligans win. Despite the fixture selling out he had managed to secure tickets, purchasing six of the best seats in the house from the legendary fixer Kraken. Robert and his pals would be sitting well away from the English and he envisaged plenty of friendly banter with the Belgians. The tickets weren’t cheap, but would go through on his expenses. There was no way he could have let his friends and colleagues down.

Robert loved the way business and pleasure merged so smoothly at the heart of the EU. This was civilisation at its best – centralised, liberal, keen to reward its friends. For those who embraced the system it was the perfect life. While his work was rewarding, the city’s restaurants, bars and nightclubs were a joy. For those on the inside salaries were high, taxes low, expenses generous, the rules flexible. Brussels attracted the finest talent from across Europe, and hearing different accents and seeing beautiful faces was a thrill in itself. Young hopefuls flocked here to further their careers in a genuinely progressive environment, actively encouraged and in certain cases mentored by the more experienced politicians and bureaucrats. It was a community at peace with itself and he hoped the English would behave, but feared the worst.

There had been reports of rioting in Germany, where England had just played, and in the age of New Football it was a disgrace that hooliganism was allowed to tarnish the brand. The Premiership was popular across the globe and worth many millions of euros in screening rights and shirt sales, while the Champions League was the greatest tournament on the planet, more important now than the World Cup, all of which made such outbreaks of disorder far worse than in the past. He had no personal knowledge of the dark days of the 1970s and ’80s, when the game was run by amateurs and the terraces ruled by fascists, but he did know that the injection of huge sums of money and the subsequent regeneration had transformed the sport, and yet clearly the job wasn’t complete. The hooligan element had to be eliminated once and for all.

These people had been such an embarrassment over the years that he often felt ashamed to be English. His UK-born colleagues, who had carved out successful careers for themselves here on the Continent, felt exactly the same. Last night he had paused outside a rough-looking bar and stared at the screen inside, seen footage of the hooligans trading blows with their German equivalents, glasses and bottles flying through clouds of tear gas. The short hair, pasty skin and crude tattoos had made him so angry he’d started to shake. It had suddenly felt as though every passerby was glaring at him, as if he was being accused of complicity. These pictures represented everything he hated about England and the English, and why he was so glad to be living in Brussels, why ever since he was a teenager he’d wished he had been born French.

The Spaak was circulating and Robert again tried to lose himself in the EU anthem. It was important to be detached as well as optimistic, but he was struggling, refocused on the Englishman outside. A gang of locals had surrounded and punched him several times, and he had fallen to the ground where the young men – who he guessed were of Turkish origin (although he didn’t mean this in a racist way) – were kicking his head and body. Robert winced, raised his glass to his lips and had another sip of his cocktail, rolling the liquid around his mouth and noting the tang of spirit, the sweetness of juice. He tried not to leer, but couldn’t stop himself, a twitching upper lip matched by a stiffening in his groin.

The Seal Club by Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner & John King is available now from London Books
(9780995721760, p/b, £9.99)

Or support your local bookstore.

As booksellers across the UK face renewed restrictions, they need your help to stay afloat.

If anything you’ve read about on our blog catches your eye, consider ordering from your local bookshop. Find yours here. Alternatively, you can browse your favourite indies on Bookshop.org.

Leave a Reply