Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash
Niko felt that strange combination of adrenaline and trepidation as he made his way across the lively streets at 2:17am, headed for Satyric Park. All kinds of scenarios were running through his mind, vying for his utmost attention. Yet he remained composed and focused, with the belief he could engineer the reality he desired, an execution of his plan. On this execution, the prospect of his country making history rested.
He felt very much an island of temperance in a sea of intoxication; an ironic position to be in, given his high-octane, all-action, party-round-the-clock lifestyle. All around him people were celebrating, whooping, reciting their favorite chants, smashing glass bottles for good measure. And why wouldn’t they be? Hours earlier, Switzerland had won their final group match of Euro 2008 to secure their place in the quarter-finals, and the veritable wave of excitement which had pervaded the host nation exploded, and some. The Swiss populace knew this would likely be the only opportunity to see their country stage a major football tournament in their lifetime, and their representatives in red reaching the last eight was cause enough for celebration. Yet, for Niko, the mastermind of the whole operation, the quarter-finals was not enough. More of this intoxicating fix was needed for satiation.
Into the park he strode, his luminous white trainers conspicuous in the late-night blackness. He sent a text message to his crew members back home, both to update them on his progress, and reassure himself. Lorik, Conrad and Felix were monitoring the mission back at base. In this case, it wasn’t the coalition who determined this operation; rather, the operation decided the coalition. Among his many contacts in his home district of Cadien was Conrad – a fellow DJ, always spaced-out, often aloof, sometimes laid-back to the point of semi-consciousness. Nonetheless, the two had over some years built an intimacy that bordered on telepathy, and it was Conrad’s vision – whilst in a state of trance after a marathon of drink and drugs in early April – which became an idea, and that idea a plan. As it turned out, anyone who took the special gear he visualized were bestowed with unparalleled talents for around two hours afterwards. After concocting the gear, Niko tried it himself in his garden, and simply could not believe what he was able to do: run twenty yards in a nanosecond, pass a ball with pinpoint accuracy, leap higher than trees, see in all directions without moving his head. Imagine the damage the football team could do with this gear inside them! Passion and dreams aside, nobody could refute that the 2008 vintage of their national team was decidedly mediocre. With this ace card, though, Switzerland could genuinely go all the way. And Niko had the intelligence, the courage and the means to play this card to the nth degree.
Niko’s heart rate intensified when the dealer appeared, but he made sure there was no trace of it in his self-assured demeanour. After a perfunctory touching of fists, the dealer engaged him in conversation about the possible winners of the tournament, and ever so subtly slipped the gear into Niko’s right hand. It felt as though he was somehow a stranger Niko had already met. Niko opined that Spain may be the team to beat, handed the dealer three bank notes – amounting to three hundred Swiss francs – and winked at him before casually heading back towards the town. The mission was not complete until he returned to the hotel with the gear, evading detection. Surely it would be a relatively straightforward task to blend his way back into the crowds, in such a euphoric atmosphere?
Another key member of Niko’s crew was Felix, a gregarious and inventive MC with stripes shaven into his eyebrows and lyrics perpetually written on his brain tissue. Felix had – via his music contacts – a direct line to the Swiss national team captain, top scorer and talisman Xander. Xander’s brother had once played the piano on one of Felix’s records, and they’d since kept in close contact, each in the audience when the other first performed live. Xander was not the captain by accident; anyone who knew him, or had even seen one of his press conferences or team talks, knew the full range of the power of his charisma and its ability to captivate. Once Xander was on board this corner-cutting voyage, it would be nigh on unstoppable.
A conference of connivance was held at Niko’s cottage, on the understanding that this was a colossal risk; in any case, their stockpile of gear would only cover the three group games, after which further supplies would have to be obtained – a perilous mission. Still, Niko’s master plan was for Xander to approach the national sport science labs – where the apparatus for conducting drug tests on athletes was kept – with his old science teacher, under the pretence of filming an educational video for students, with Xander making a ‘special guest appearance’ to increase its appeal. The subterfuge was played out successfully, and having gained access to the labs, Xander conducted tests upon himself, half an hour and an hour after having consumed the gear. Not a trace came into view on the results. This was a surefire winner!
Xander then gathered the entire squad in his house late one Sunday night for a secret meeting, using his powers of persuasion to some effect. His teammates knew Euro 2008 may well be the acme of their playing careers, and so they acceded to Xander's demands; under no conditions were they to breathe a word of this to their veteran coach Jürgen, nor to their families, the media, the Swiss fans or any of the behind-the-scenes staff. They could easily cite their country’s position as host nation, and its related rapture, as the pretext for their miraculously elevated performances. In any case, Jürgen was retiring after the Euros, and there could be no better valediction than attributing a best-ever tournament showing to his leadership.
Niko was on his way back to the hotel when a police car came to a halt beside him. Out stepped two officers. Niko’s heart rate suddenly intensified. This was precisely why he’d been reluctant to take on this mission after the original gear had run out. Lorik was to be the port of call if Niko ran into the law; his connections to the special forces unit provided Niko with a ‘get out of trouble free’ card, another layer of metal onto an already well-reinforced exterior. Even so, Lorik was not to be contacted unless absolutely necessary, and there was no guarantee he would be awake at this hour. At any rate, if the gear was seized and impounded, it was game over, mission abandoned.
As the officers approached Niko, he wondered how passionate about football they were, how badly they wanted Switzerland to succeed in Euro 2008, whether it was really in their interests to derail Niko’s operation there and then. They might even have been at the opening ceremony, he thought, and seen first-hand the flags, the singing, the strangers embracing each other, the unifying power of football, the inception of this month of euphoria.
The opening ceremony had preceded a disappointingly lacklustre 1-1 draw with France, but the gear began to pay dividends in their 6-1 obliteration of the Republic of Ireland four days later, in which gifted midfielder Tymon wrongfooted and outclassed the opposition defence with a guile and an artistry that almost defied belief. The following Saturday, captain Xander was at his devastating best, netting a hat-trick in the 5-2 win against tournament holders Greece, who themselves required victory to overtake Switzerland and qualify. After his side went behind early on, Xander rallied his troops and invigorated the crowd by taking matters into his own hands. The post-match celebrations had a passion and a verve to and about them that hadn’t been felt for so long. Xander conducted the fans’ clamorous rendition of the national anthem, then pointed towards the upper tier of the arena. There, in amongst the sea of red, was all of Niko’s extended crew, each given a free ticket for their part in the operation. Next stop: the quarter-final on Wednesday night.
One of the officers asked Niko if he had seen a young Swiss fan in a tracksuit and baseball cap; it transpired that there had been an affray between the sets of supporters, and they wished to speak to this young fan. Niko serenely replied that he hadn’t, and was only out to buy a few cans of lager at the off licence down the road, if that was alright with them. They bought his quickly-thought-out explanation entirely, wished him a pleasant night and drove away. Niko smiled to himself as relief displaced all other emotions. Now nothing could disrupt the carefully-choreographed march to the semi-finals. It’s back on!
Once safely inside his hotel room, Niko snorted a celebratory line of cocaine by means of his keys, then made an exultant phone call to each of his crew in turn. They conferred on final plans for the next stage of the operation, to be executed upon his return to Cadien later that Sunday. He was to take the 11:36 train after breakfast; Felix had resourcefully laid out an assortment of coffee and amphetamines on the kitchen table to maintain the crew’s energy through the day! Yet Niko was someone for whom chaos could – sporadically and without warning – supplant the rule book. With no coherent basis for doing so, he decided to knock on the door of room 45, whence music and vivacious chatter was audible. A young man in much jewellery answered. Half-expecting to be laughed out of the corridor, Niko explained with elemental honesty who he was, reeled off a list of dance hits brought into being by his record company and presented his reserve supply of MDMA crystals. And in he went! All he could see was young people at the very top of life – gleefully chatting, inhaling large quantities of nitrous oxide, moving and swaying to a compilation of late-1990s dance anthems, the soundtrack to this most surreal of times.
Back in Cadien, the sun rose above the mountains, infusing this Sunday with a spirit that had a sense of destiny about it. Lorik was strolling along the nearby fields, an amalgam of chewing gum and blue pills in his tracksuit pockets, when Niko messaged his change of plan: the trip home would be postponed until Monday, hedonism taking precedence once again! Lorik felt at once ejected, dejected and rejected. The last two months had been a seemingly incessant feast of sunshine, music, drugs, camaraderie, and the general notion that everything made sense. Now, it felt as though everything was happening, yet nothing was happening. He threw another pill into the sky, caught it in his mouth and strolled on.
Meanwhile, in room 45, the speakers were turned up and the restraint down. Niko immediately took to his new comrades, spinning amusing yarns about musicians he’d signed amidst further lines, with his default demeanour of continual glow. His mood had been enhanced beyond measure by the curious compound of conversation, alcohol and narcotics. He even had the audacity to play a few memorised classical pieces on the piano in the hotel restaurant during their ‘off-our-heads’ breakfast – an audacity that could only be found in the special energy that greets such sustained saturnalia.
Niko bounced on, boarding the replacement bus service – owing to a technical fault on the railway, he was told – with an accelerated heart rate and pupils the size of a tennis ball. Time passed so quickly, punctuated by the conversations of fellow passengers. Niko felt as though they were all on his side, yet he was wary of attracting their attention whilst still very much ‘high’. He had entered a new world with those people – those who fate took him towards – and was drowsy with hope that this reverie would continue for a while yet, into the afternoon. When it finally subsided to leave reality, he firmly believed that reality would be Switzerland in the semi-final. Every waking moment of the next 24 hours, in part or in whole, would determine that.
Niko returned to Cadien that afternoon. The following 24 hours were an intense fusion of the surreal and the practical, principally occupied by the rendezvous with Xander in a secluded coppice (the captain had claimed his grandmother was seriously ill to be exempted from duty for the day). He paid the crew sizable sums in return for the gear, and agreed to allocate the gear at set times during Tuesday’s training, for consumption directly before their quarter-final against Portugal. Xander knew exactly at which times there would be the most players and least coaching staff present at the training ground; his captain’s armband was comfortably large enough to conceal the gear. Foolproof indeed.
And so to Wednesday night, and what a night. The crew had rejoined Niko in his cottage to see the action unfold. Switzerland played beyond their normal limitations in the first half, besieging the Portugal goal with adventurous attacks, only to be thwarted by either goalkeeper or woodwork. As the match went on, however, the effects of the gear were abating and the red squad were manifestly tiring. With six minutes remaining, striker Marco unthinkingly gave away a penalty kick, and the nation placed its faith in goalkeeper Denis. The stadium reached an incalculable decibel level when he guessed right and palmed the penalty away to safety. Denis osculated his gloves, Jürgen jumped up and down on the touchline, the substitutes embraced each other. Yet Niko was momentarily engulfed by a sense of foreboding; why had he not put together a contingency plan for the probable event of extra time? How could he have been so naïve?
The ensuing half an hour of extra time delivered moments of brilliance and frustration, before substitute Rikki took possession thirty yards from goal, with eyes for only one target: the top corner. Niko’s cottage erupted when the ball hit the net; the gamble had paid off after all! The final whistle sparked further jubilation on the pitch and uninhibited elation in the stands. Tears rolled down Xander’s cheeks as he celebrated with his teammates. After all those years of hurt, Switzerland had finally reached a semi-final.
Felix took on the duties of measuring out lines and cutting straws into quarters, ready for a whole-crew coke rampage. They were going to bleed the place dry! As the other boys laughed and sang, Niko flicked onto the news channel and discovered that all trains on the Cadien-Satyric line had been cancelled indefinitely, following a fatal crash on the Sunday, not a technical fault as he had heard. The crash killed all passengers and staff onboard; it occurred shortly after the train departed from Satyric, at 11:36am.
This young writer from the south of England has been coming up with ideas for as long as he can remember. So far, his work has been published by a Science-based journal in 2009 screened at a theatre festival in 2019 and featured on no fewer than four literary websites this year.
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