In 1994, Zaire were favourites for the World Cup. Many people hadn’t even heard the name of this African country before it made its first colourful appearance in the World Cup Competition in 1974. Since then, football in Zaire had gone from strength to strength, and now it seemed at last that there was no one to beat them.
They had many great players in that 1994 side, as I expect you remember. Players like Adebowala on the left wing and Oladipopu at centre half. But one man stood head and shoulders above all the others. He was their centre forward and captain, probably the greatest player of all time – Oduwole.
Oduwole was a footballing wizard. He could do things with a football that had to be seen to be believed. People who remembered seeing the legendary Pele said that even he had no skill or manoeuvre to match the devastating effectiveness of Oduwole’s banana kick.
Unless you had seen him perform this amazing kick you would be perfectly within your rights to say that such a thing was impossible. This twenty-year-old man could kick the ball with either foot straight at the corner flag; it would streak fast and low for ten or fifteen yards and then swing round in an incredible curve to flash past the bewildered goalkeeper into the back of the net.
Several other world-class players have been able to ‘bend’ the ball of course, but never through the angles that Oduwole could bend it. Scientists from all over the world tried to explain it. They watched it in close-up and in slow motion. They attached instruments to the ball and instruments to his feet – Oduwole always played in bare feet. Several theories were advanced; but in the end the only thing the scientists could agree on was this: it happened. And even if you couldn’t always believe the evidence of your own eyes, the camera saw it as well; and you can’t hypnotize a camera – can you?
The 1994 World Cup Competition was held in Iceland. A huge stadium had been specially built just outside Reykjavik, and the whole world waited excitedly for the competition to start. All the teams arrived and set up their training camps; and in every camp the final preparations were completed.
Not surprisingly, the home team, Iceland, was especially keen to do well. They were clear second favourites. Their brand of football was less attractive, but their record of wins was impressive. They went in hard, they went in to win, and they generally did. The rest of the world predicted a Zaire versus Iceland final, and that was how it finally turned out.
Before the Competition began, there was a lot of heated argument amongst soccer experts as to how the favourites Zaire would be affected by the weather. Zaire is a hot country. Its players became great players in the great heat. Surely their game would be affected by the great cold of the host country? Surely Oduwole would have to wear boots, and where then would be his magic?
At all events, they were proved wrong. The Icelandic sun seemed to shine more strongly on Zaire than on any other team. They played above themselves, and the barefooted Oduwole led them to victory after victory. Zaire won all their matches. Iceland drew two and won all the rest, which was good enough.
What a battle the final was to be! ‘Flair and Style against Steel and Strength‘, ‘Visitors against Hosts‘, ‘Sun Gods v. Ice Warriors‘. The headline writers had a field day. In the home team’s training camp, there was daily discussion about how they might turn the tables on the favourites. No man tackled the problem more fiercely or devotedly than Iceland’s trainer and manager, Thorgrím Kjallaksson.
Iceland owed their footballing success to the dedication and drive of this one man. And now Kjallaksson concentrated every muscle of his mind on this climax to his team’s career – the final of the World Cup. He dribbled the whole thing up and down in his thoughts day after day. He organized films of Zaire matches for his players to watch and analyse. He hotted up the team’s training programme until it threatened to blow a fuse.
‘It all comes down to that kick,’ he told himself, ninety times a day. ‘We’ve got to learn the secret of that banana kick. And if we can’t do that, we’ve got to nobble that centre forward.’
Well, if all the scientists in the world couldn’t discover the secret of the great curving kick, how could Kjallaksson hope to discover it? And anyway, even if he knew the secret, there was no guarantee the knowledge would help his team to handle the centre forward any more effectively.
No, the only answer was to nobble him. But how? Other teams had tried ironing him into the pitch, but they hadn’t even been able to catch his shadow as he took the ball past them. On the field he was invincible.
How about off the field? No. Thorgrím Kjallaksson was a hard man, and there was very little he wouldn’t do to help his team win; but he wasn’t a criminal, and he stopped short of kidnapping and assault. Besides, the risks were enormous. No. He would skate on thin ice, but not quite as thin as that.
Ice. Could that be how he first got his idea for nobbling the incomparable Oduwole? It was worth a try. With a bit of luck … But he would need one member of the team to help him. That part was easy. Thorgrím Kjallaksson was able to inspire great trust and loyalty in people – a talent he put to better use later on, as you will see – and he had little trouble in persuading Iceland’s right winger, Steinthór Arnarson, to fall in with his plan.
`Just trust me,’ he said. ‘I know what I’m doing. Haven’t I always done the best for the team? Haven’t I made you into world-beaters? It may not be needed. Just take the throws-in along the right wing like you normally do; but if I tell you during the game to throw the ball in to their centre forward as if by accident, just do it will you? No questions, and not a word to anyone.’
And while his winger could see no point in giving the ball to the best player on the opposing side, especially when he was the best player in the world, he trusted his manager so completely that he agreed to do as he said.
The day of the match was perfect. It was clear, dry, cold and sunny; and for two hours before the kick-off an estimated five hundred million people all round the world watched the ceremonies that the Icelanders had laid on. There were bands, singers and marchers of all description. Men and women paraded in traditional costume, representing the heroes and heroines of Iceland’s history, frozen in the stories of the sagas. There were men disguised as trolls and other grotesque monsters of the legendary past.
The ceremony ended with a ‘Procession from Pre-History’. Life-size and incredibly life-like reproductions of animals long since extinct wound their slow way around the pitch to the cheers of the excited crowd. Each reproduction was of an animal which had been found encased in Iceland’s ice, where it had lain for thousands of years, perfectly preserved. Thorgrím Kjallaksson, taking his seat on the trainers’ bench, was in time to see the animals lumbering past towards the tunnel from which the two greatest football teams in the world were about to make their entrance.
To the full-throated roar of a gigantic crowd, the match began. A hundred thousand people had collectively paid more than five million pounds for the privilege of watching the game in the flesh. Very few people had been able to travel all the way from Zaire to Iceland, so the crowd was overwhelmingly in support of the home team. All the same, they could appreciate good football when they saw it, and the team from Zaire were certainly giving them something to enjoy. The ball flashed between them, and several times Iceland’s defence did well to scramble it clear. Their normal game was unsettled by the brilliance of the visitors, and they weren’t being allowed to get into their stride.
Thorgrím Kjallaksson sat grimly on the trainers’ bench watching his team struggle. He had been afraid it would be like this. That was why he had gone to the lengths that he had. Under the bench, near his feet, was a football. It looked perfectly ordinary, but it wasn’t. The leather had been frozen iron-hard. The ball was still full of air but its surface was as cold as ice. This dedicated trainer of the Icelandic team was determined to see his team Champions of the World. If he got a chance to use this ball he would. One kick of that with his bare feet and Kjallaksson was fairly sure Oduwole would be out for the rest of the match.
The chance came. The ball came out of play off a Zaire player, soaring straight towards the manager’s dugout. Without pausing to believe his luck, he caught the ball low between his feet and the force of it took his hands under the bench. It was the work of a second to take the frozen ball in his gloved hands and run with it to the touchline. He handed it to Arnarson the right winger, muttering fiercely: ‘Do it now!’ and ran straight back to the bench. The crowd gave a great cheer to see the manager in action. Television commentators told people all over the world why the crowd was making so much noise.
The ball had gone out about half-way between the half-way line and the Icelanders’ corner flag. Spectators were amazed to see the ball apparently slip as it left Arnarson’s hands, fly over the head of a defender and drop at the feet of the wizard, Oduwole. ‘What a mistake!’ babbled the commentators. ‘This could be a chance for Zaire! Oduwole has turned after it and hit it first time. It’s streaking across to Adebowala at the far corner flag … ‘OH MY WORD IT’S A GOAL! WHAT AN INCREDIBLE GOAL!! The ball was heading for the far corner flag when it swerved through ninety degrees to flash past Iceland’s goalkeeper into the net! The entire Zaire team is jumping for joy now as they rush over to Oduwole to congratulate him. Wait a minute. Something is wrong with Oduwole. Something is very, very wrong!’
As Oduwole had struck the ball, so he had remained, with his arms held out wide and his right foot stretched out in front of him. His body was supported entirely on his left leg. As his team mates rushed up to congratulate him, he slowly toppled over and crashed to the ground. His arms were still held out wide and his right leg was still stretched out in front of him: so that now it was stuck grotesquely in the air.
The crowd fell silent. The referee ran across to the player, knelt beside him for a moment and then signalled for a stretcher. Even on the stretcher the body of the greatest footballer the world had ever known was still caught in the movement of that last kick. He looked like a still-action photograph, like when they stop the camera just at the moment the ball leaves the foot.
His body was ice-cold and iron-hard. Frozen solid.
The referee blew a long blast on his whistle and signalled both sides off the field. He ran across to Iceland’s goal and picked the ball out of the net. He bounced it a couple of times, then carried it over to his linesmen. All three left the field together. All three testified later that there was nothing wrong with the ball.
The match was cancelled, out of respect for a great player, and in order that an inquiry could begin at once. Neither Arnarson nor Kjallaksson ever mentioned the business of the ball, either to each other or to anybody else. Arnarson told himself it was a perfectly ordinary ball or the referee and the linesmen wouldn’t have said it was. In the brief moment he had handled it he had thought it felt … but no, how could he tell how it had felt in the heat of the moment? Terrible business, leave well alone. No sense in complicating things.
Kjallaksson was deeply shocked. He had no explanation for what had happened, any more than he could explain how the centre forward could make the ball move through ninety degrees like that. Why didn’t the referee or the linesmen detect the frozen ball?
He shouldn’t have done it, but he was desperate to win and there was no real evidence to suggest he had been responsible for the centre forward’s death. Too late to do anything about it now anyway. He had the replay to think about. The trainer let his mind dwell on the possibilities now that Oduwole was out of his way. A warm glow of satisfaction spread through him.
The replay went to extra time; but Iceland won. World Champions, 1994.
A Memorial Fund was set up and there was more than enough money to fly Oduwole’s body back to Zaire, and to bury it with the full ceremony befitting a man who had brought so much fame and good will to his country. There was more than enough money to keep his entire family for more than a lifetime. But Oduwole was buried in Iceland. The rest of the Zaire team was adamant, and so was their manager. They would take no money. They would talk to no one about the player, or how they felt about their great loss. They asked only to be allowed to bury their countryman according to their ancient traditions and customs, in private.
Their wish was granted, and the greatest footballer the world had ever seen was laid to rest in the corner of a small cemetery between two villages outside Reykjavik. There was no fuss, no publicity, no ceremony at which the rest of the world could pay its last respects.
It was a nine-days wonder, of course. The Zaire team went home, as did all the others, and the world turned its manoeuvrable mind to other things. The only time newsmen or cameramen were interested in that part of the country was when the Prime Minister entertained important visitors in his official country residence, which was close by.
There was just one strange thing about the grave.
It was noticed by the men who cut the cemetery grass, kept the place tidy, and dug graves when they were needed, which wasn’t often. It was this. During the winter the cemetery was always covered in deep snow, but in the summer the sun melted the snow, and for a few months, plants and flowers flourished in the welcome warmth. Except on Oduwole’s grave. On Oduwole’s grave the snow would not melt. Long after the snow had disappeared from the rest of the cemetery and the surrounding countryside a rectangle of crisp dry snow would remain on this one spot.
The men asked the local vicar, being a man of God and well-educated, to explain it. He said that it was a cold spot, though why it should be so he could not imagine. It must be due to freak natural causes; and as it was doing no harm to anyone, he didn’t think there was much point in taking the matter any further. After all, Iceland is a country of contrasts. Active volcanoes spout molten rock over the frozen slopes of mountains. Lava runs in burning rivers down to the icy sea. The clouds of steam can be seen for many miles.
Still, one tiny grave-shaped cold spot in a corner of this cemetery was a little hard to explain. But one thing was certain: there would be an explanation. There’s an explanation for everything.
So year after year, the men who tended the cemetery ground swept the snow off the patch on to the ground around, where it melted immediately. Underneath the grass looked green and fresh. But it was the same grass that formed the turf which had been laid on the grave by the other Zaire players all that time ago. It hadn’t grown and it hadn’t died. Sometimes the men would kneel in wonder, reach out and snap off a blade.
It was frozen solid.
Almost everybody else had forgotten that Oduwole had ever existed by the time the World Cup Competition was again due to be held in Iceland.
All the teams arrived and set up their training camps, and in every camp the final preparations were completed. Zaire had qualified, but they were considered rank outsiders. They had never again captured the flair and style of the great 1994 team, nor had they ever found a centre-forward even approaching the quality of the legendary Oduwole.
In fact, there wasn’t a world-class centre-forward in their squad, as far as anyone knew. Nobody bothered about it very much. After all, with their present team and on past performance, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of them reaching the final.
The Competition was officially opened by Iceland’s Prime Minister. How appropriate it was that the man who had trained Iceland’s victorious World Cup squad for the 1994 Competition should now be opening the Competition, once more on Iceland’s fruitful soil. It warmed the hearts of all the commentators, amongst others, to see it happen.
Thorgrím Kjallaksson had been the most popular man in Iceland after their World Cup triumph. He followed in the footsteps of the great Pele by accepting the post of Minister of Sport, newly created for him by a grateful government. Kjallaksson was a man capable of inspiring great trust and loyalty in all who knew him. He proved an able politician, and after a distinguished political career – first as Minister of Sport, then of Education, and finally of the Icelandic Exchequer – he became leader of his party, and was returned to power with a massive majority.
Once again, Thorgrím Kjallaksson could be seen exercising his qualities as a manager: training a team which was proving itself increasingly adept at the game of international politics. His team played hard and played to win. Kjallaksson generally made sure they did win.
He intended using the occasion of the World Cup Competition to good effect. Politicians and dignitaries from all over the world had come to Iceland for the Competition, and Iceland’s Prime Minister was entertaining the most important and influential of them for the period of the Competition at his country residence. At the end of the opening day of the Competition a fleet of big cars, flanked by police outriders, could be seen moving swiftly from the great stadium outside Reykjavik to the Prime Minister’s magnificent house in the country.
Spring was late coming to Iceland in 2014. Snow still lay thickly on the ground all round Reykjavik. Fortunately, the pitch had the best form of underground heating there was to be had, and so the Competition went ahead without too much in-convenience. Players took extra precautions against catching cold, especially the players from hot countries.
In a small cemetery between two villages outside Reykjavik, it was time for the sexton to lock the gates for the night. He’d been at work all day, and he was looking forward to seeing the opening ceremony of the World Cup Competition on television. Thanks to the miracles of modern science the proceedings had been frozen on film and could be replayed for the benefit of all the people who had been unable to see them ‘live’ during the day.
Because it was a small cemetery, it was not surprising that the sexton noticed that in one corner of the ground something had disturbed the snow. Clearly visible in an otherwise unbroken carpet of snow was a rectangular hole. The sexton was puzzled. No graves had been dug that day. Besides, the snow all round was undisturbed. No footprints either to or from the hole.
He plodded across to the spot, his footprints leaving deep impressions in the crisp clean snow. Because the snow covered everything, the sexton couldn’t be absolutely certain; but he was as sure as anybody could be in the circumstances that the rectangular hole in the snow was directly above the ‘cold spot’ which had remained frozen ever since – oh, who was it now? – somebody famous had been buried there.
He reached the edge and peered down. He could see straightaway what had happened, though he had no idea how it could have happened. The snow had melted. It was all gone. The sides of the snow wall around the rectangle were covered in icicles: the melting snow on the outer edge of the rectangle had frozen as the water trickled beyond the edge of the space directly above the grave.
But that wasn’t all. The grass that formed the turf was brown – shrivelled up – and the ground beneath it looked parched and cracked. The sexton had only ever seen soil in that condition once before. He had watched a film about some country or other in Africa where it hadn’t rained for three years. All the animals and many of the people were dying of thirst. Close-up pictures of the dead, dry ground had looked just like the ground lying now four feet below the surface of the snow.
The sexton jumped into the hole, knelt and put the palm of his hand on to the ground. He snatched it away with a gasp. The ground was actually hot. It was baking – almost too hot to touch – and bone dry: like the skeleton of an animal drought-dead and sun-bleached for a generation.
One of his assistants was about to pass through the gates on his way home. The sexton called him over. Something would have to be done. After all, whatever it was might spread, and it would be a dreadful scandal to have the bodies of respected, long-dead Icelanders disturbed – even burned up – by whatever was generating that heat. He shuddered to think what imaginative journalists could do with a story like that. ‘Burning Bodies‘, ‘The Long Fingers of Satan‘ and nonsense of that kind. Oh no. Better to get to the bottom of it now, while they were the only people to know that anything was wrong.
Together they decided to dig down to find the source of the heat.
It was difficult at first to break through the hard ground with their spades; but after they had hit on the idea of throwing snow on it the work went ahead more quickly. The snow melted immediately, and the water sank straightaway into the grateful earth: softening it and making it easier to shift. Soon the spades struck on the hard surface of a coffin lid. The two men scraped away the remaining earth and gazed down on the uncovered coffin. It was of dark, plain wood, with no nameplate; and it was smouldering. Wisps of smoke rose from its sides; and as the men watched, a flame flickered in its centre. The air appeared to have accelerated the combustion process. It seemed that soon the lid must begin to burn fiercely.
‘Quick, a screwdriver!’ said the sexton urgently. As quickly as he could, he unscrewed the coffin lid. His companion stood at the graveside waiting to receive the piece of burning wood. Smoke hung now in a pall about the heads of both men as they struggled to lift the coffin top out and cool it in the snow. The smell given off by the burning wood reminded the sexton of the incense burned in church every Sunday: to purify the air and drive away unclean spirits. There was no trace of the foul, sweet smell of rotting flesh: which wasn’t surprising. In normal circumstances, no flesh would still cling to a body which had lain in the ground twenty years or more. By rights the coffin should contain no more than bones.
At last the job was done, and the coffin lid lay hissing and spluttering on the snow surface. The two men stood panting at the graveside, looking down to see what had given birth to such heat. The calm, composed face of an African in football strip looked up at them. His feet were bare and his hands were crossed on his chest. His eyes were open. The sexton cleared his throat uneasily. His mind was struggling to process this latest bit of unexpected information. He had to decide what they should do next. After all, he was the senior official present.
The decision was made for him. As the sexton opened his mouth to speak the lips of the corpse suddenly parted to show strong white teeth. There was a hissing noise, which sounded like air being drawn in fiercely through clenched teeth, and the body sat straight up, still with its arms folded across its chest, still with its legs stretched out in the coffin.
The two men never minded admitting what they did next. What would anybody in their position have done? They fled from the graveside as fast as their legs would carry them to the church in the centre of the cemetery, and hammered on the adjoining vicarage door. They poured their story into the sympathetic ears of their vicar: what had happened, what they had done, what they had seen, out there in the cemetery …
The vicar was a logical man, in spite of his calling, and he was ready with an explanation. ‘Wasn’t that the coffin that was buried in the cold spot you pointed out to me before?’ The men agreed it was, and the vicar smiled. Now he was sure he was right. ‘You remember how that parcel of ground was always frozen solid? Well, obviously, the extreme cold kept the body perfectly preserved. We never knew why it was so cold in that spot, but it obviously stopped being especially cold recently. Because the body had been prevented from rotting for so long, the processes of decomposition must have been much faster once the temperature allowed them to begin. The outer surface of the body may have seemed unchanged, but clearly decomposition was rapid inside the corpse, and that would have generated heat, just like in compost. Confined in the coffin, the heat built up, until …’
He left the consequences hanging in the air. The two men, still in a state of shock, looked doubtfully at one another. Enough heat to melt all that snow? Enough to set the coffin lid alight?
‘And as for the corpse sitting up,’ the vicar went on, ‘such a thing is very common. Decomposition creates gases that are trapped inside the body and lift the torso. The hissing sound you heard was of the gas escaping.’
The sexton stood up. He’d had a lot to do with bodies in his time and he wasn’t easily frightened; but tonight, he needed help. He grasped the vicar’s arm. ‘Would you come with us, sir?’ he said, pleadingly. `Just to make sure everything is, well, as you say it is.’
‘Of course I will,’ said the vicar, gently.
It was now quite dark outside. It seemed to the vicar, as he walked with the two reluctant men towards the offending grave, that he could smell spring in the air. He could swear it was warmer. Perhaps the thaw was coming at last.
The grave was empty. Despite the large number of bootmarks left by the sexton and his assistant, another set of prints could clearly be seen leading away from the grave, diagonally across the snow-covered ground, until they reached the path which had been swept clear of snow. The prints had been made by someone in bare feet.
‘If this is somebody’s idea of a joke,’ said the vicar angrily, ‘it’s in pretty poor taste! It all ties up of course. That poor fellow died during the last World Cup Competition. Some lunatic is using the occasion of this World Cup to play a cruel practical joke. I will inform the police straightaway. The desecration of a grave is a very serious business.’
He wished the two men goodnight at the cemetery gates. ‘Not a word to anybody about this. If the story got into the papers, it would be very bad publicity. We must avoid a scandal if at all possible.’
The two men nodded. Since they had found the grave to be empty they had not looked at the vicar and had scarcely heard his voice. They had looked only at one another and listened to the voice of their fear. Perhaps they were not as Christian as the vicar. Certainly their forefathers had never quite given up on the old gods, the old ceremonies: even if they did call them ‘country customs’ and carried them out only because ‘such things have always been done’.
They felt in their bones that something beyond the reach of reason had happened that night, something that had little to do with their vicar’s gentle Christianity. They would make sure that neither they nor their children, nor their neighbours, nor their neighbours’ children would venture out at night for some considerable time to come.
The Prime Minister was feeling very pleased with himself, and with life in general, when he climbed out of his car at his country mansion that evening. He waited while the other cars drew up and his distinguished guests assembled in a group around him. The opening ceremony had gone well, and he was looking forward to the special dinner that he had laid on for his visitors.
He led the way through the magnificent double doors into the great hallway. Paintings in gilded frames hung on the walls from floor to ceiling, mostly of gentlemen in robes carrying swords and of ladies in long velvet dresses carrying babies. A wide staircase swept up out of the centre of the space and curved round to disappear into the regions of the next floor. His attention was immediately arrested by an object which certainly had not been there when he had last stayed at the house.
A massive wooden totem pole stood firmly in the well of the staircase. It stretched its exotically carved length out of sight in the direction of the top floor of the house. His guests gathered round it admiringly. A representative of Her Majesty’s Government of Great Britain said that he had seen nothing like it outside the British Museum and asked how on earth had they managed to get it through the front door?
The Prime Minister smiled mysteriously. He had no idea how it had got there, but there must be some logical explanation. Perhaps it had been sent as a present by one of the visiting African countries. But why had he not been told? He would have some strong words to say to the senior official in charge of the house’s affairs at the very first opportunity.
The Foreign Minister from Zaire was examining the carvings with great interest. His fingers traced the lines carved in the wood and his lips pursed in admiration. He was a highly-educated man, having taken a first-class degree in Modern Political Theory at Oxford University and then spent some time at Sandhurst Military Academy, yet the scars of the old tribal marks that had been cut into his face as a boy were still clearly visible.
‘I must congratulate you Prime Minister,’ he said. ‘This totem is very old and wonderfully carved. Very few of this quality have survived – even in my country.’
Kjallaksson seized his chance. It would not create a good impression to admit he knew nothing about it whatsoever. ‘Perhaps you would like to tell us what you know about it. I am sure we would all be most interested.’
Interpreters murmured their translations, and all the guests nodded in agreement. Everybody gathered round.
‘Well, such totems were objects of worship for my people many generations ago. This one is very old, very rare, very valuable.’ The party moved up the curving staircase while the Foreign Minister from Zaire told them what each shape meant, and which gods the faces and figures represented.
‘And now if we move to the very top of the pole you will see the figure of the All-Powerful One. My people believed that this god lived among them, recognizable by his great skills and most potent powers. Such a legend, of course, was created by the witch doctors, who used their skill and power to control the people …’
The party reached the top landing. There was an expectant silence as everybody waited for their guide to explain what this remarkable and somewhat incongruous carving was doing at the top of this apparently authentic and ancient tribal totem pole.
A change had come over the Foreign Minister from Zaire. He was staring at the figure. He drew in a deep breath, and the air hissed as it was forced between his clenched teeth. The skin was stretched tight over his knuckles as both hands gripped the banister rail hard. He had the appearance of a badly frightened man. He pulled himself together with an effort.
‘Yes, very interesting: a highly unusual addition to the traditional designs. Most appropriate, though. Prime Minister, would you be good enough to excuse me? There is some urgent business I must attend to at the Embassy in Reykjavik. Most annoying, I know, but it won’t wait. I will re-join you as soon as I have dealt with the matter.’ The Foreign Minister was backing down the stairs as he spoke. Without waiting for a reply, he strode quickly down the staircase and disappeared through the front door without looking back.
The Prime Minister was left with a silence to fill. ‘Well, he is certainly right about its appropriateness to the occasion,’ he murmured. They gazed for a moment longer at the life-size figure of an African footballer, carved at the top of the great tree trunk. The figure was balanced on its left leg. Its arms were held out wide and the right foot was stretched out in front of it, as though it had just kicked the ball. The feet were bare.
The gong sounded for dinner.
It was not until after dinner that the Prime Minister could excuse himself from his guests and begin to investigate the whole business. He had not liked the way the Foreign Minister from Zaire had so abruptly withdrawn. He had not liked the fear he had seen in the man’s eyes. Besides, he recognized the figure on the top of the totem. It was a good likeness, and Kjallaksson had never been able to forget that face.
He learned from the senior official that the pole had simply appeared the previous day in its present position. Nobody had seen it delivered or installed – which was amazing considering its size and weight; but an African gentleman had called that morning in an Embassy car to say that the totem was a gift from his country to Iceland and that it had been installed on the specific instructions of the Prime Minister.
‘There seemed no reason to doubt him, sir,’ said the official anxiously. ‘I am sorry if I have failed in my duty in any way.’ Kjallaksson reassured him and dismissed him abruptly. An Embassy car … He rang the Zaire Embassy, and was not surprised to learn they had no record or knowledge of any totem pole.
Still, who could possibly connect him with the Oduwole business – except Arnarson? He had lost touch with the veteran winger years ago. He made a mental note to have Arnarson’s whereabouts and situation thoroughly checked out.
His phone rang. It was the Chief of Police. ‘Very sorry to disturb you, sir, but we have a delicate situation on our hands, and in the circumstances – knowing of your deep personal involvement and interest in the World Cup Competition – we thought we should let you know. A most regrettable incident has just been reported to us by a local vicar.’
Kjallaksson’s hand shook when he replaced the phone in its cradle. His brain was gripped once more by images imprinted there long ago. He saw with his mind’s eye as clearly as though he were watching a film the wizard Oduwole kicking that amazing goal in the 1994 Final; and then, over and over again, the rigid, frozen figure toppling to the ground.
Somebody was trying to frighten him, the Prime Minister realized. They weren’t making a bad job of it either. But if they thought they could crack him, they were wrong. Nobody knew the whole truth; so whoever was pulling these stunts must be relying on guesswork. Thorgrím Kjallaksson was a man who knew a trick or two himself. He was hard, and when he played he played to win. As to the outcome of this particular little game, well, we would just have to see, wouldn’t we?
Because there were so many distinguished guests, the security forces in the grounds had been doubled. Police dogs roamed free outside the house, and police cars patrolled the perimeter road. Nobody could get in or out. At any rate he was safe enough tonight. Tomorrow he would alert Special Branch. Then woe betide whoever was at the back of all this.
Kjallaksson woke suddenly. The house was still. He looked at his watch. 3.00 a.m.. What on earth was going on outside? It sounded like a crowd cheering. He felt for his bedside phone and dialled the number that put him through directly to the Chief of Security in the house and grounds. ‘What the hell’s going on out there?’
‘I beg your pardon, sir?’
‘That crowd cheering outside my window!’
‘I’m sorry, sir, I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘That crowd, man. Just listen to them!’ The Prime Minister held the phone towards the window. The sound of cheering and applause filled his ears. He replaced the receiver to his ear. ‘Well?’
‘Erm, sorry, sir, I can’t hear anything. My men have reported nothing unusual in the grounds. Are you sure you aren’t still in the grip of a powerful dream, sir? That has happened to me once or twice.’
It seemed to Kjallaksson that a numbness gripped the back of his head with its long, dead fingers. ‘Thank you, Inspector.’
‘That’s all right, sir. Would you like me to come round and check that everything is in order?’
‘No, thank you. Goodnight.’
Kjallaksson climbed slowly out of bed, went across to the window and looked out. A crowd of people stood round in a semicircle cheering and clapping while in front of them an African in Zaire strip was juggling the football with his feet, his knees, his shoulders, his head. He had amazing control. Even from that distance, Kjallaksson recognized the style, and the face.
The Prime Minister’s ancestors were Vikings: good fighters, hard men. On the wall of his bedroom hung a great two-headed axe, shaped in the likeness of a Viking blade. Kjallaksson took it down. He would settle this thing once and for all, and he had chosen his weapon.
He paused at the top of the stairs. The wooden figure on the top of the totem pole looked in the darkness like the player himself, frozen in that final scoring position. Kjallaksson swung the axe round his head and aimed a sweeping blow at the carved head.
The axe blade shattered, and the haft fell from his nerveless fingers. The shock had smashed into them and there was no feeling in his arms below the agony of his elbows.
The totem pole was indeed ancient. The wood was petrified, fossilized: frozen …
The front door was open. Kjallaksson walked out of the house and on to the lawn. He stopped in the middle and stood for a moment in the quiet and stillness, breathing the freezing night air. Then he turned back to look again at the house. Framed in the light of the door was Oduwole with a football at his feet. He dribbled towards the barefooted, pyjama-ed figure of the former Iceland trainer-manager and rolled the ball towards him invitingly. Kjallaksson struck it with his bare right foot. The ball streaked towards the corner of the house before suddenly turning through ninety degrees and shooting through the open doorway.
It was an own goal.
The following morning, the Prime Minister was found on the front lawn by a police dog. He was stone dead and as cold as ice. He had obviously wandered out in the night after his bad dream, had a heart attack and frozen in the bitterly cold weather. Curiously, the position the body was in was identical to the one that had afflicted the legendary Oduwole in his final moment.
Zaire won the World Cup that year, against all odds. Their success was due almost entirely to a hitherto unknown member of their squad. They had brought a world-class centre-forward with them after all. He could do things with a football that had to be seen to be believed. He bore a marked resemblance to his supremely talented predecessor, whose name is now legend, alongside those of the heroes and warriors of bygone ages.