The day was grey and warm. It was February but warm and it felt like late autumn. He was going to the bus stop through grim and muddy Wroclaw. The bus was already at the bus stop. He bought a ticket from the driver and sat down by the window. The bus departed. While it was going through a new country, cool and fresh in the early morning, he was thinking about the trip from Prague the night before and the mountains against the stars out of the bus window and then about his friend Cyril asking him to stay in Prague for a few days more and how Cyril was a real poet and could fill the world around him with poetry and that he was the first serious poet whom he, Peter, had met, and by far his best friend though he had met him three days ago and then he thought about that girl in Prague and that he really wanted to stay there for a few more days. But he had also agreed about this palace and the owner had cut the cost down a lot for him. He wanted to write something before going back to Warsaw, to university.

Peter got off the bus in Nysa, where John Barnes was to meet him. Peter called Mr. Barnes, who told him he would come soon on an old Land Rover. Mr. Barnes arrived in ten minutes. He was a big, tall man looking and walking like a bear. They shook hands and got into the car and drove off to this small village where the palace had been standing for hundreds of years.

“So, you are a student, aren’t you?” asked Mr Barnes.

“I am, yes,” said Peter.

“What are you studying?”

“English philology with German.”

“Do you like it?”

“Not the studying, not the university. But I love reading and writing.”

“Oh, so you are a writer?”


“I am a writer, too. Well, used to be. Now I want to write a book about the palace and its restoration. What do you write?”

“Short stories, mostly.”

“You’re going to write in the palace, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I really want to. Could you please tell me about the palace? When did you buy it and why?”

“Twelve years ago. I sold my flat in London and bought a palace here. I have been restoring it even since. There are many abandoned palaces, manors, villas and even castles for sale in Poland and they do not cost much.”

The day was dull grey, yet warm and cosy. They came to the palace. It had a courtyard with a well and reminded Peter of a small castle. The palace was not big, having some 20 yards by the sides. It was 400 years old. Mr. Barnes showed him into his room and told some things about the place and showed some beautiful murals which had been recently discovered. Although the palace did not look big, it was spacious inside. Peter’s room was facing a park with old trees and then fields and mountains far away. It had a wood stove and many carpets on the stone floors and was simple and beautiful. Wood, stone, fire, Peter thought, that’s all. The room had a desk and a window right above it with the view of the old park.

Mr Barnes showed Peter the hens, the rugby field, and the old cars he was bringing back to life. Then he invited for a breakfast and introduced him to the family. John Barnes had a Polish wife and five children. The wife seemed to be a strict lady. The children were all around, speaking two languages, often switching from one to the other. The rooms where the family lived, otherwise clean, were stuffed with books and magazines, many of them about old cars. Peter was having breakfast alone. Bread and butter and sausage and some tea. The children were running, laughing, talking, and arguing everywhere; there was a distant sound of a piano. It was cheerful. Peter was entering this calm, trance-like state after the night without sleep and he was happy to see this family and to have this breakfast. It was that, he thought.

Mrs. Barnes and the children went to their grandmother.

“Am I the only guest right now?” Peter asked.

“Yes. There aren’t many people in winter. We live on what we earn in summer.”

“Is there anything I could help with?”

“No, not really.”

“Maybe some wood to chop? I really want to do something. I am staying at half the price.”

“Let’s go, then.”

Mr. Barnes showed him a very large barn with wood, broken pieces of old furniture, and anything that could be burned. Peter was to break stumps into firewood. Mr. Barnes showed him how to do that and how to use splitting wedges and how the wood fibres curved and where it was better to chop. Peter had never chopped wood in his life. Mr. Barnes left him with the stumps. He immediately liked chopping wood. He liked workouts that produced something. Some of the stumps were like stones. Peter had to use different wedges to break them. He thought about Warsaw and the university and how what he was now doing had much more to do with education than all the lectures he had been to. Warsaw lived on people, making them as grey and lifeless as it was itself. When the stumps were broken and chopped finely, Peter went to his room in the palace. He felt very good, warm, and tired. After taking a shower, he slowly put his clothes on and lay on the bed.

So, there was the desk. Peter sat at it with his notebooks. He stayed at half the price because he had told Mr. Barnes he was a poor student and just wanted to spend some time out of Warsaw and write. He was a poor student indeed and wanted to stay out of Warsaw forever. And he was a writer and had to write. The trees in the park by the palace were glorious. They had been standing there all that time. Peter had a desk, a palace, and those old trees and fields and mountains far away. And he wrote.

Peter spent the evening alone, thinking and watching the fire in the stove. He let it die out and understood how important it was to never let it die out. He lit it again himself.

Peter thought about Prague and how it was much better than Warsaw. About Cyril and how he wrote poems, lived the life of a poet, worked two days a week as an assistant waiter, and made enough money to live. Maybe he could do it, too. To be a writer and not a student.

It was getting dark. Very dark, not like in Warsaw where it’s never dark enough. And there was complete silence. How good would it be to live like that with a wife and children and have a palace of your own which is a whole world in itself, Peter thought. It was too dark and silent for now.

Peter slept for 14 hours. When he awoke it was grey outside. He decided to take a good walk in the park and the fields. He packed his smoking pipe, put his coat on, and went out through the courtyard. The pipe lit up very well and Peter was cheerful walking first through the park, then by the side of the rugby pitch, then by a muddy road through the fields with the mountains afar off. There were many deer in the fields, which were called sarna. They came quite close to the road. Peter saw a hill in the distance. He thought it was a great place for a family picnic.

Peter went back to the palace through the village. There he asked an old man:

“Where can I buy some meat?”

The old man showed a house where Peter bought a huge bag of smoked meat and sausages for just 20 zloty. The meat was hanging from the ceiling in a small barn and smelled like real meat did.

At the palace, Mr. Barnes gave Peter three eggs just from the henhouse. Peter fried the eggs with a sausage. It was the best breakfast he had ever had. After the meal, he started cleaning his pipe. Someone knocked at the door. It was Mr Barnes. He told he was going to take a look at an old villa that had been bought recently and maybe the owner would be there and he could ask him about his plans for the restoration. Would Peter like to join him? He would. Then Mr. Barnes looked at the table.

“’Three Nuns,’ isn’t it?” he asked. “My father used to smoke it for 30 years.”

“He opened the tin and smelled it, smiling.

“Then he gave up smoking but I remember it all through my childhood.”

Peter told him something about the tobacco mixture and how it had been changed since then. Then they went to the car.

They were driving through a beautiful land. The sun sometimes came out of the clouds and lit the fields and the forests and the two great lakes. In the sun, it looked like spring coming unexpectedly. Mr. Barnes was telling Peter about old mansions and palaces in those parts, abandoned and decaying.

“You either have to dedicate your whole life to bringing it back to life or have a lot of money. But those with money often make it only worse. They don’t get it…”

They arrived at the place when it was grim and grey again.

“I’ll go around and take a look. You can stay here, it’s quite muddy over there,” said Mr. Barnes.

They went around in deep mud. The villa was three-storeyed, dark, and neglected except for a new door in the doorway at the height of the second floor. It was an old Prussian villa. Mr Barnes told Peter how it could be restored.

Then, unexpectedly, came the owner. He was about 60 years old, though good-looking and agile. With him came a girl and a man, both in their twenties.

“Hello! Interested in my villa, huh?”

“Good afternoon! Yes, these types of houses are not bought often here. My name is John Barnes.”

“Joe Anderson, nice to meet you.”

They all shook hands and introduced themselves.

“Here’s my girlfriend and Mateusz, the man in charge of the villa while I’m in the U.S.”

“Why did you decide to buy it, may I ask, and here?” asked Mr. Barnes.

“It’s much cheaper here than in Western Europe or the U.S. Everything is much cheaper.”

Joe told Mr. Barnes he was a retired U.S. army officer and some things about the villa. Peter was looking at them all. It seemed the girl and the young man had something going on between them.

“So how do you plan to restore it?” asked Mr Barnes.

“Well, the main problem is central heating,” said Joe.

“Are you going to build it?”

“Of course! It’s cold down here. I would’ve built it already but, you see, it’s not the same as in America. I have a lot of experience in construction, but here in Europe it’s all different. You have to start learning from the beginning.”


“I don’t have the whole plan, you know. I know I want a gym on the first floor. And, you see, that door,” he pointed at the second-floor door. “They had an entrance right there! I’m now thinking where to make a normal ordinary entrance!”

Mr Barnes stood looking at the villa, then at Joe, then again at the villa.

“And you,” Joe turned to Peter, “you’re a writer, right? Drink much, I suppose?” he said, smiling.

Peter was too much into looking and thinking to give an answer.

“He is a serious writer; he doesn’t drink,” said Mr. Barnes.

“For a good writer it’s a predisposition,” said Joe, chuckling good-humouredly.

If only John and Joe could become friends again, Peter thought, after all those hundreds of years.

Peter and Mr. Barnes were talking mansions, palaces and castles on the way back. Peter wanted his own palace, and to restore it, and to preserve it. But there was such a palace, he thought. A very big one, though.

Mr. Barnes said they would go to the Czech side for a bit. They were going through some wonderful villages with smoke going up from chimneys. Suddenly, the car stopped near a field. There was a regular road ahead of them and a very muddy road going into the field.

“I think we will go through,” Mr. Barnes said and the car was in the field in seconds.

They went through the already spring field, all muddy and watery. Peter was excited and laughed because of the feeling of adventure. The car went up and down, jumping and splashing mud everywhere. They felt the same in this journey, unexpected and perilous as it seemed. That was what all men needed. Peter had never had anything like it with his father.

The car went up the hill with a view over the fields in the sun, green and as if it was already spring. Then there was a village out of a fairy tale with small houses and a church and a shallow river they waded across. On the way back, Peter saw the border separating the countries and felt the difference between them. He had to start fighting immediately. He could not stay in a parents’ house anymore.

“I think I’ll leave today,” Peter said on the road back to the castle.


“It’s too quiet in the night.”

“Lonely, isn’t it?” Mr. Barnes asked, smiling.


Peter thought about the girl from Prague.

“I will come again.”

“Good. Will be waiting.”

Peter thought he would miss the palace and Mr. Barnes and the food and the fields and sarnas. He would miss Mr. Barnes as he sometimes missed his father, or the father he dreamt of. He had to be like his father and was not, could not. Then he had to be like some father. Some father he could respect. To not be cut off. To succeed his father.

The bus was going to Prague through the night. Peter thought. The Palace was the West. He had to save it. With his words. And his hands.