“Do you understand, Záruba?” asked the prison director, after he’d read out the decision from the Ministry of Justice in an almost ceremonial voice. “It means you’ve had the remainder of your life sentence conditionally remitted. You’ve served twelve and a half years, during the whole of which time your behaviour has been… erm, yes, exemplary. We gave you the best possible reference and… ah… the fact of the matter is, you can go home. Do you understand? But remember, Záruba, if you put a foot wrong, the conditional remittance will be revoked and you’ll have to serve out the rest of your life sentence for murdering your wife Marie. And then not even God himself would be able to help you. So be careful, Záruba. The next time, life will really mean life.”
Moved by the situation, the prison director paused and blew his nose.
“Although we liked having you here, Záruba, I wouldn’t want to see you here again. So, goodbye. The administrator will give you your money. You can go.”
Záruba, a six-and-a-half-foot tall beanpole, shifted awkwardly from foot to foot and muttered something that suggested he was so happy that it hurt; and something rattled and rustled inside him that suggested he was sobbing.
“There now, there now,” the director said gruffly. “You’re not going to burst into tears here, are you?! We’ve prepared some clothes for you, and Málek the builder promised me he’d give you a job… What’s that? You want to take a look back home first? Ah, at your wife’s grave. Well, that’s commendable… So, all the best, Mr Záruba. And, for God’s sake, be careful. Don’t forget it’s just conditional release.”
“What a nice man!” the director said, as soon as he’d shut the door. “You know what, Formánek? Murderers can be very decent people. Not like fraudsters – they’re never satisfied when they’re in jail. I’ll miss Záruba.”
Once Záruba had left behind the courtyard and the iron gates of the Pankrác prison, he couldn’t rid himself of the uneasy feeling that, at any moment, a guard would appear and take him back. He slowed down, so it wouldn’t look like he was escaping.
When he got to the road, it made his head spin. So many people! A group of children chasing each other over there. Two chauffeurs having an argument. Dear God! There didn’t used to be so many people. Where should I go? Doesn’t matter. Vehicles all over the place, and so many women. Is anyone following me? No. But all those vehicles!
He wandered down into Prague, trying to get as far away from Pankrác as possible. He could smell salami from a butcher’s, but not now, not yet. And now he could smell a building site. He used to be a bricklayer before he was imprisoned. He stopped and breathed in the smell of mortar and wooden beams. He looked at an old fellow who was mixing lime; he’d have liked to have a chat with him, but he couldn’t summon his voice – you get out of the habit of talking when you’ve been in solitary a long time.
He carried on down into Prague. Goodness gracious! So many new buildings! Made entirely of concrete. It wasn’t like that twelve years ago, not in my day. But the pillars are so narrow! Surely they’ll collapse!
“Watch out! Are you blind or something?!”
A car had almost run him over, and then he nearly got hit by a clanging and clanking tram. Jesus! You don’t even know how to walk down the street after twelve years!
He wanted to ask someone what that big building was; and how to get to the North-Western Station. A lorry full of iron rods rumbled past, so he took the opportunity to practise saying aloud: “Excuse me. Please would you tell me the way to the North-Western Station.” No, that won’t do. It doesn’t sound at all like a human voice. Your voice box goes rusty and mute up there in Pankrác. You ask about something here and there during the first three years, but then it stops.
“Excuse me, please would you…”
Something crackled in his throat, but it wasn’t a human voice.
He stepped out and hurried into the tangle of streets. He felt as if he were drunk or dreaming. Everything was completely different from twelve years ago: it was all bigger, noisier and more confusing. Just the people! So many of them! It made him feel sad: as if he were in a foreign country and wouldn’t be able to make himself understood. If only he could get to the station and take a train home. Home… His brother had got a cottage there, and children.
“Excuse me, please would you…”
But only his lips moved. Oh well! I’ll get over it when I’m back home. I’ll start speaking again. If only I can find the station.
Suddenly someone shouted at him and pulled him back on to the pavement.
“Why don’t you walk on the pavement, you idiot?!”
He wanted to reply but couldn’t. He just coughed and hurried forward. Kept to the pavement, but the pavement was so narrow. People, I’m in a hurry! I want to be back home! Please, how do I get to the North-Western Station? Probably through the busiest street, over there with all the trams. Where have all these people come from?! Crowds and crowds of them, all going the same way. The station must be that way. That’s why they’re running, so they won’t miss the train.
Záruba the Beanstalk sped up once again, so he wouldn’t be left behind. And just look at that! These people can’t keep on the pavement either! Rolling along down the middle of the road. What a packed and noisy crowd! And new people appearing all the time. Running and shouting something. And then the voices became one mighty voice.
The din makes Záruba dizzy. Dear God, how beautiful! So many people! Up ahead they’ve started singing a marching song. He gets into step with the others and feels happy, marching alongside them. Yay! Everyone’s singing now!
His throat is thawing, and something’s pushing its way through it. It has to come out. And it’s song. He’s singing. Singing without words. Humming. Da-da-da-ing in a deep bass. What’s the song? It doesn’t matter. I’m going home, I’m going home.
He’s got to the front row. He’s singing. Not words. But it’s so beautiful. “Da-da-da,” he trumpets, arm raised. Trumpeting like an elephant. The song resounding throughout his body, his stomach like a drum, his chest like a double-bass. And it feels so good in his throat, so good. As if he’s been drinking, or crying for joy.
Thousands of people are shouting “Throw them out! Throw them out!” but Záruba can’t make out the words. He just trumpets “Da-da-da!” At the head of the marchers, head and shoulders above the rest, he waves his arm, braying like a donkey, shouting, singing, thundering, beating his chest, and the noise he makes is like a great big banner. “Roo! Dey! Ow!” is what comes blasting out of his mouth. He’s totally immersed. He’s crowing like a cockerel. “Ow! Aah! Hoorah!”
And now the crowd’s come to a halt because something’s blocking the way. They retreat like a seething wave flung back on itself. But Záruba holds his ground, eyes closed, lost in that great, liberating voice from deep within. “Ow! Aah! Hoorah!”
Suddenly someone grabs him, and a breathless voice hisses into his ear, “I’m arresting you in the name of the law!”
His eyes open wide. A policeman is dragging him by the arm, away from the panicking crowd. Záruba cries out in horror and tries to pull his arm away. The policeman twists it. Záruba yells with pain and punches the policeman in the head with his free fist. The policeman’s face turns red. He lets go of Záruba, but then a truncheon hits Záruba on the head. And again. And again. And again. Záruba’s fists wheel round like a windmill, connecting with various heads. Two men in helmets are hanging on to him like bulldogs. Grunting in terror, Záruba tries to shake them off, kicking and wriggling like mad. But the two policemen are dragging and pushing him somewhere, his arms twisted behind him, through an empty street. Left, right! Left, right!
And now he’s like a lamb. Excuse me. Please would you tell me the way to the North-Western Station. I need to go home.
In the police station, they almost throw him in front of the desk.
“Name?” The voice is unpleasant and cold.
“Záruba,” Záruba wants to answer, but all he does is move his lips.
“I said, ‘What’s your name?’”
“Antonín Záruba,” he wheezes.
Helplessly, he shrugs his shoulders.
It was highly irregular, of course, but this is how it was. The judge, the state prosecutor and the defence counsel got together to discuss how to get Záruba off.
“Best if he just denies it,” said the prosecutor.
“That won’t do,” said the judge. “In the interview, he admitted fighting with the police. What an idiot!”
“What if the police say they can’t be sure it was him?” said the defence counsel. “That it could have been someone else?”
“Do me a favour!” objected the prosecutor. “You want us to teach the police to lie?! When it’s clear as clear could be they recognised him? … I’d go for insanity. Suggest he undergo a mental examination.”
“Well,” said the defence counsel. “I’ll suggest it. But what if the doctors don’t find him to be mad?”
“I’ll have a word with them,” said the judge. “It’s highly irregular, of course, but – damn it! – I wouldn’t want Záruba to spend the rest of his life in jail for something stupid like that. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I’d give him six months without batting an eyelid, but, colleagues, I’d hate to see him spend the rest of his life in prison.”
“But if insanity won’t work,” said the prosecutor, “it’s not looking at all good. For Christ’s sake! I’ll have to prosecute it as a crime. What else can I do?! If only the fool had dropped off somewhere in a pub! Then we could put together some sort of defence of inebriation…”
“Colleagues,” pleaded the judge. “Please think up some way of me letting him off. I’m an old man, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for… You understand.”
But there was no hearing. That night, Antonín Záruba hung himself, evidently from dread of returning to jail. Because he was so tall, his corpse was hanging in a weird way. Almost as if he were sitting on the ground.