The Centauress


Alex’s Notebook: Summer 2006


Zenia’s voice is beautiful on the MP3 file. I sometimes switch the laptop on just to listen to her speaking, in the interviews she gave me, three years ago, on that first, tentative visit to the Kaštela Visoko in Istria. She talks with a painter’s eye for visual detail and her voice in the headphones is vibrant, husky, and challenging – just as Zenia was in life. But as I listen, I often wonder just how much of the truth she told. Does memory lie, or does it just accommodate itself to the conventions of story-telling? Or does it, as in dream, create narratives of its own?

The first recording is one of my favourites. We were sitting in the shade of the loggia on an airless autumn afternoon with a bottle of wine open on the table. It was one of Zenia’s bad days. I had asked about her childhood, her family, her home, and found her evasive and uncooperative. Zenia had retreated into some small internal space and closed the door. Even encouraged by Freddi, she could not, or would not, answer my questions, turning her face obstinately away, talking about the olive harvest, the problem of finding girls to work for the tourist season, Concetta’s marital difficulties. Anything but the one subject I wanted her to talk about – herself. Then, almost out of desperation, I asked, ‘What’s the first thing you remember?’

For a moment Zenia picked at the hem of her linen tunic with her fingers in an angry kind of way, and I thought she was going to ignore this question as she’d ignored all the others. But then her face changed; her eyes began to flicker with images that only she could see and her mouth relaxed, beginning to shape the words to fit. It was like turning the key to an ancient lock. I could almost hear the stiff tumblers clicking over, one by one, until the door unlatched and you could walk through. Zenia’s voice on the recording is deep, almost masculine, but also musical, every syllable separately pitched and accorded its own variations of tone and colour. When she talks it’s as if she’s dreaming aloud. When I close my eyes it’s as if I’m inside Zenia’s memory.


When I wake up in the dark the first thing I see is the mirror. This one not very special, just a long thin glass on the wardrobe door beside my bed. As soon as I open my eyes I can see my hunched-up body under the bedclothes, then the enamelled bedstead. You have seen those old Italian beds? Painted with flowers and scrolls of gold leaf – very beautiful. On the other side of the room I can see the thick brocade drapes across the windows, flared with the shadows of the night-light my nurse has left on the bedside table. Even then, I was fascinated by the play of the light, how it shaped and sculpted and told different stories. There is a wash stand against the wall and a little chair beside it. In the mirror I can see the line of light that marks the edge of the door. It opens into a corridor and at the end of the corridor is the room where my mother is entertaining friends. Tap, tap, tap. Their heels echo on the marble floor. People are coming in and out of the room and as the door opens and closes, there are little pulses of music and laughter. I can’t bear to be alone here in the darkness. Basta! I say to myself. I can’t stay here.

It’s a great distance from my bed to the floor. Slowly I slide down until I can just touch it with the tips of my big toes. My nurse used to put me in a long cotton nightdress and it has coiled itself round my armpits, stringing me up like a criminal. I tug myself free and lower myself onto the marble floor. How cold it is! How well I remember that feeling on the soles of my feet.


Zenia paused here, running her tongue over her dry lips. I thought she was going to stop and opened my mouth to prompt her, but Zenia had already begun again, lapsing into Italian, speaking fluently and fast, her beautiful eyes flashing. I had to struggle to keep up with the flow of language.


In the corridor the lights were flickering in their bronze sconces. In my mother’s day there were Venetian mirrors in ornate frames on each side. These were fascinating for a child. In daylight they showed a series of paintings. Nature Morte, I suppose I would call them now. But I had already begun to suspect that behind their surfaces lurked other worlds, with different perspectives. It was as if the glass was a sheet of water, changing whatever you could see under it. I used to stare into them for hours. Reflections of ordinary things, a lamp or a vase of flowers, everything became magnified into something wonderful and strange. Even my own image came back to me altered. That was when I first knew that I was a twin. In the mirror was my other self; a changeling child, my face angelic and obedient, hair curled and be-ribboned by my nurse, clothes immaculate – only my eyes were mine, dark, fierce eyes staring at me out of the glass.

But at night, these mirrors became a terrible ordeal, showing terrible things – distorted fragments – mutilated faces – images of hell. I knew I must avoid them, or they would steal my soul as I passed.

And then, suddenly, I am outside my mother’s door and I think – how am I to open it? I am too small to reach the handle and this makes me angry. I lean against it in a temper and push. Like magic the heavy door swings open and I am there in all the warmth and the light. Eccomi! My mother is leaning against the piano with her head thrown back. Signor Puccini is sitting on the piano stool with his hands on the keys and another man I do not know is playing the violin.

‘Ah! Bambina!’ someone calls and the music stops. They all turn to look at me. My mother’s head swivels towards me and her face is cross. ‘I can’t get her to stay in her room,’ she says angrily. ‘What am I to do?’

‘So sweet!’ One of the ladies leans forward. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Zenobia,’ I tell her.

‘What a strange name,’ she says. It is what everyone says. The cook says it is like an illness, or a foreign plant. But of course it was my grandmother’s name they had cursed me with. My father’s mother.

‘They call me Zenia,’ I whisper. She offers me a sweet. And then I am allowed to sit on her lap and listen to the music. I fall asleep with my face pressed against the hard sequins of this lady’s dress. The dangling glass beads of her cap glitter above me in the light and, as they glance against each other when she moves her head, they sound like someone laughing.


And then suddenly Zenia stops. I remember that she looked dazed and disorientated. I can hear her voice on the recording asking, ‘Who is this woman? What is she doing here?’

‘She’s come to write your life into a book,’ Freddi says in very literal, awkward Italian, as if explaining to a child. ‘She’s the biographer.’

What did it mean to Zenia at that moment? The biographer? A collector of gossip, of memories, an assortment of facts, tossed together in a matrix of words, printed on paper, bound between glossy covers.

After a pause I can hear my own voice again, soothing, non-committal, hoping to restart the flow of recollection. ‘Did you have a good relationship with your mother?’

‘I was a difficult child,’ Zenia replies, almost sulkily. She shrugs her shoulders and raises her hands. ‘My mother could do nothing with me.’ Then there’s a brief silence on the recording as she looks at me with those penetrating, disconcerting eyes, almost as if she knows what’s in my head. ‘It is the most difficult relationship, is it not?’


September 2003


It was an unusually cool September day. London felt tired. The view from the restaurant window was grey – grey pavements, grey buildings, grey water.

‘So, how would you feel about writing this book?’ Jane asked, a forkful of spinach and mozzarella pizza poised halfway between plate and mouth.

Alex liked Jane; she was sharp and funny and would probably have been a friend if she wasn’t Alex’s agent. They hadn’t been in touch for a long time – it had been a bit of a surprise when Jane had rung yesterday and invited Alex to lunch. She’d felt wary, a little defensive, but had eventually accepted and now they were sitting opposite each other in a restaurant on the South Bank.

It was only when Jane had suggested a pizzeria, rather than one of the smart bistros and wine bars she usually favoured, that Alex realised how far down the ratings she’d sunk. But, considering Alex’s own long silence, the unanswered emails and the abandoned book contract, it was a miracle that Jane was still speaking to her at all.

‘Zenia’s marvellous,’ Jane put down her fork. She was almost bouncing on the chair with enthusiasm. ‘So articulate! And only the tiniest bit ga-ga – she’s so eccentric you don’t even notice. But apparently she’s very ill and it’s going to be vital to get everything down quickly before she deteriorates.’

Even before the menus arrived, Alex had realised that this lunch was simply an excuse for Jane to sell the notion she’d had on her recent holiday in a fortified hill village in Istria, owned by someone Jane described as ‘the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met’.

‘Zenia lived in England and America, knew Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, stayed in Paris with Picasso. She even painted Marilyn Monroe for God’s sake!’

Zenobia de Braganza, one of the most famous living European painters, the grande dame of the Veneto, who owned an entire Istrian hill village which she rented out to tourists like Jane in the summer, but in the winter filled with her friends, creating a colony of artists and simpatici.

‘She seemed to like the idea,’ Jane said, pushing a strand of blonde hair back from her face. ‘Wants to tell the truth while she’s alive so that people can’t tell lies after she’s dead. And I’ve talked to her London agent – no problems there. It would be a good excuse for a retrospective in the Tate Modern, which of course would help to sell the book. Bloomsbury might be interested, and Harper Collins, providing I can get a good writer. So I thought of you. A spell in Istria might cheer you up.’

Alex suppressed a sudden impulse to hit Jane hard across the face. The surge of anger was so strong and physical, Alex could taste the bile in her mouth. The violent reflex shocked her, but, thanks to the little blue capsules of anaesthetic, prescribed by the doctor, Alex managed to contain her rage. Why Jane should think a holiday would cure what she’d just been through was incomprehensible. Alex could only assume Jane had never experienced any kind of family tragedy or real pain in her entire life. Alex’s whole world, her way of seeing everything had been irrevocably altered. It was like going back to the Tate Gallery after having become colour blind; the paintings would be there, still the same, but all the colour and life would have gone out of them. There would be no point. Alex hadn’t written a word in almost two years. The grief counsellor she’d been assigned afterwards, had recommended that she kept a journal to record her thoughts and feelings, but the pages had remained obstinately blank. The feeling still persisted that there was no point in anything anymore, but the grant from the Royal Literary Fund was almost spent and her small legacy down to single figures.

The flush of anger receded, leaving Alex feeling slightly shaky. She held her tongue between her teeth for a moment longer and then asked, ‘What sort of advance are you thinking of?’

Jane shrugged. ‘We’ll have to negotiate that. But Zenia’s agent seems to think they can cover all your expenses to go out there on an initial visit &ndash see how you get on with her, whether you like the idea. Get a synopsis together based on the published material – there’s loads apparently. Then I’ll try to sell it while you’re out there. You speak Italian don’t you? Of course it’s Croatia now, but Istria used to belong to Italy before it was Yugoslavia and a lot of people still speak the language.’

Alex looked out of the window. It was a cold, bleak day with persistent drizzle. Pedestrians in gloves and scarves were scurrying along the concrete walk-way of the South Bank. An unkind wind was whipping the Thames into spiky waves. Jane had just been talking about Istrian sunshine, the citrus odour of the lemon tree below her window, describing the sunset in the Adriatic. Alex was conscious of a great longing for warmth, colour and light. Could she write this book? Was she actually still capable? It was the first time in two years that Alex had felt even the stirring of an inclination.


Alex spent the rest of the afternoon in the National Portrait Gallery looking at likenesses. There was a canvas by Francis Bacon, early work but still with the characteristically dramatic strokes, the cruel drawing out of the figure. Zenobia de Braganza’s name was on the label, but the painting didn’t give any clues to the reality of her appearance or character. In another room was a photograph of her aged twenty-five by Man Ray – a dark unruly head sculpted by light, jutting, furious brows, half closed eyes and the most beautiful, androgynous face Alex had ever seen. The strong bone structure, voluptuous lips and brooding eyes could have belonged to either sex. This was no ordinary person. It was that face that decided Alex to write the biography.

© Kathleen Jones