A Zebra in Piccadilly Circus

by Yoann Ré
Robert Jameson stood outside the prison gate as immobile as the lamp post next to him. His left hand was holding the worn handle of a bag. The seams were stretched taut; the simple bag contained a lifetime of belongings. There was not a sound to be heard in the vicinity, except for Robert’s loud breathing and the distant radio of a prison guard slouched in his chair.

     A car emerged and the driver waved to the guard. Robert’s fingertips struggled to catch the door handle. He braced one arm on the roof and another on the seat before easing into the car as though he were getting into a bathtub of hot water. A few inches from the seat, his body dropped and the car’s springs rocked back and forth. As he leaned back with a sigh, he stared down at his hands and saw liver spots and yellowing fingernails.

     ‘Where to?’ the cab driver asked, adjusting his rear view mirror.

     ‘Main Street.’ The old man closed the door. ‘In Dallas,’ he added.

     ‘Can’t get anywhere near there. Not today. Griffin Street good enough?’

     Robert nodded. He didn’t know where Griffin Street was. He didn’t know where anything was. He only remembered Main Street.

     Today was November 22nd, 1963 – that he knew. Today was the day he recovered his freedom, the day he had looked forward to for over fifty years. Yet now that he was outside the prison, without a soul looking over his shoulder, he didn’t feel free. Unless freedom came with fear, confusion and anxiety. He was too old to get a new life.

     Staring out of the window, he felt obliged to explore the world that had remained forbidden to him for so long. He knew observing the surroundings and marveling at life was the expected reaction, but instead he felt more lost with every passing block of buildings. Panic showed the tip of its ugly head every time he saw a person wearing odd, unfamiliar clothes.

     His gaze went down to his own dusty and bland trousers. He was wearing the clothes he had worn the day of the incarceration, before being stripped naked to put on the dreaded jail outfit. They were now too large. He had never realised how much weight he had lost since his thirties. His body was now a creased sack of bones. A lot of time had passed since his first day in the prison; two World Wars and the Great Depression. The world wasn’t the same world, and he wasn’t the same man.

     Engines growled all over the city, as if wild animals had been unleashed in the streets. He saw a two-wheel vehicle fly by the cab and gaped at it; he didn’t remember seeing any of those in his time.

     Still, it was an impressive sight. He hadn’t expected to see the world again. The prosecutors and the prison guards hadn’t expected it either; a three hundred-year sentence usually meant a life sentence. But modern technology had cleared his name and proved he was innocent. How anyone ever thought he was capable of murdering and raping six teenage girls was beyond him. Some said better late than never, but Robert doubted that.

~~~

The cab stopped as close as it could to the Main Street, at the crossroads between Griffin Street and Elm Street. When he stepped out from the cab, a hot whiff of air mixed with smoke hit him. This was an entirely new smell.

     A background noise resembling the lunch time hubbub caused by prison inmates echoed through the buildings. Robert walked down Elm Street, looking about him like a lost child. A man brushed past him in a hurry and Robert started; he felt like he was in everyone’s way, like a hair in a bowl of soup.

     There were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people gathered in the streets leading to Main Street. Robert was afraid to mix with a crowd, but he was even more afraid of being alone. So he kept on walking between the mass of people on one side and the deserted street on the other.

     The crowd was gathered along the street, stretching their necks to glimpse a piece of the action. A sign was posted on a wall, reading “Dealey Plaza”; another place Robert had never heard of. He joined the crowd and stood on his toes.

     A car led a procession and he remembered seeing this model on the television; it felt odd to see it for real. Behind that one were two more cars, with the one in the middle lacking a roof. The convertible came closer to the vehicles Robert remembered seeing before his incarceration. The feeling of familiarity, as silly as it might sound, warmed his heart. Five people were sitting in the convertible; the driver, plus two women and two men.

     Robert’s toes started hurting so he walked away from the crowd to try and find a better spot. He glimpsed a building with the inscription “Texas School Book Depository”, but chose to stand on the highest steps of the building across from it. His view was much better now. The convertible had turned left onto Elm Street, driving slowly away.

     A firecracker exploded and rippled through the air.

     The people in the car became agitated and frantically looked about them. The man who had been waving to the people retracted his hand and raised his elbows high.

     A second firecracker exploded, immediately followed by a third. Robert looked to the Texas School Book Depository, where the sound had originated, but saw nothing unusual.

     The crowd fell silent, but soon whispers emerged. Heads were turned in all directions. Robert, annoyed by his ignorance, walked to the mass of people.

     He heard names and mentions of gun and presidents, but nothing made sense. A man ran past the crowd, shouting and gesturing, and when he arrived to where Robert was standing, everything finally made sense: “President Kennedy has been shot!”