It was a sunny morning. A man alighted at a small railway station…
This is how a short story might begin. Although, as far as I was concerned, I just could not begin at all. After all, lots of short stories begin this way. But this is a feuilleton, not a short story, so I ought to begin as follows: It was a sunny morning. I alighted at a small railway station. A tall, bald man met me on the platform and helped me carry my luggage to the car. I soon discovered that the man, Alain Baton, was the caretaker at the place I was being driven to. Alain did not speak any Polish, which was understandable. I did not speak any French, which was less understandable, since the French are convinced that most of the world, let alone a foreign writer, must be fluent in their language. On the whole, I had no trouble understanding Alain. Some Poles believe Ukrainians really speak our language and that it’s about time the Lithuanians stopped their silly game.
I had been awarded a grant and Alain was taking me to the villa where I was to create. Everything I needed to create was provided: a huge room with a view of a park and an en-suite toilet and bathroom; food, a cook, a cleaner; financial remuneration; the above- mentioned Alain, just in case a door handle came off; and free use of a car and fuel; keys to the cellar with unlimited fuel of its own, and on top of it all I was provided with two ladies in their seventies. They also came to the villa to create.
Alain opened the door. The minute I spotted the imposing gate and an iconostasis with pictures of saints I immediately realized this was no ordinary villa but some sort of cosmic Orthodox church. There were some hundred icons there. All in black-and-white, with signatures at the bottom. As I approached, I spotted portraits of our very own Polish saints. I felt relief and a sense of familiarity. I sensed that their presence would help me. From the centre of the iconostasis the kind eyes of St Stanisław Bereś of the Forelock gazed out at me. On the right the icon of St Olga Tokarczuk of the Ploughs Driven Over the Bones of the Dead was grinning over a copy of a French newspaper, held upside down. St Marek Bieńczyk of Twórki was on the left. Next to him was St Agata Tuszyńska of the Chin Dimple that I have always found attractive. And right at the bottom the icon of St Lidia Amejko of All Saints of the Estates.
Jesus, I thought, what an honour has befallen me, for after I leave here, an icon depicting me, an insignificant little writer from Western Bielawa station, will be on display here next to all these megasaints. I must be in paradise! Well, not quite, because smoking is prohibited. And there is no Internet either. I sit down to write first thing in the morning. The next day I sit down and start writing again. This goes on day after day, for a whole week. I keep on starting but I just can’t get going. Eventually I go to an Internet café in the nearby town. I open my mailbox to find a letter from a friend, the Czech writer Tereza Brdečková. She says she does not envy me this hell: when she stayed at this place a few years ago, she was unable to write a single word – she got depressed when she realized she was staying in a huge cemetery.
Only after reading her e-mail did I realize I was only a few miles from the Belgian city of Ypres, where thousands of young men were killed by yperite [mustard gas]. But surely things can’t be so bad. After all, once the two old ladies have gone, the Saviour is due to arrive. Perhaps Jesus will help me somehow, perhaps he will unblock me. After all, he’s a friend of Almodovar’s. He’s the writer and co-author of his wonderful films, a famous Spanish writer. Jesus, I am waiting for Thee. I, too, have written a book full of perversion, sacrilege, prostitution and homosexuality behind the scenes of a Catholic seminary. Surely we will find a common language. Just come and save me. May creative inertia desert my mind and may the old ladies desert me as well. I can’t think of anything else. Another bout of inertia. I go downstairs, stare at the iconostasis and humbly beseech the male saints – Bereś and Bieńczyk – and the female ones – Tokarczuk, Tuszyńska and Amejko – to pray for me. But they seem somehow reluctant. And so a month goes by, livened up by excursions to the cellar, since, as they say, in vino veritas.
The old ladies have left. I learn form Alain that Jesus is arriving a week late. So I utter a few French curses, which I have managed to learn in the meantime. I stayed in the enormous villa all alone. I was still unable to write anything. I couldn’t even drink, since I don’t like drinking on my own. All that was left was waiting for Jesus. After a week spent in this hermitage (I gave the cook time off and cooked for myself), Alain finally brought Jesus, Jesus Ferrero. He was only a diminutive Jesus, barely one metre sixty. His huge bald head inspired confidence, although his eyes, darting to and fro, failed to evoke the authority that is supposed to emanate from a namesake of the son of the Lord.
On learning that smoking was prohibited and there was no Internet in the villa, he grew sad and pronounced a succinct assessment: this is not a place for creative work, this is hell! The following day after dinner he produced a litre of whisky and before we finished the bottle he informed me that literature was dead, as evidenced by the iconostasis, and that you can’t write without smoking and without an advance. He asked if I had received an advance from my publisher. Make sure you have the motivation, he said. When the bottle was empty, he whispered: we are still in hell but I plan to be resurrected in the morning. Tomorrow is the Third Day… And he kept his promise. Around lunchtime he came to my room to say good-bye. No smoking means no writing and no advance. Adios amigo. And he was gone.
P.S. I did receive an advance from my publisher. Jesus was right. Inspiration was bound to return!