THERE WAS a man. His name was Zack. His parents came from what is now Latvia, but he was born in this country. His father had a small business, and he inherited it when the father died, when he was thirty-three. The mother lived two more years. Zack stayed with her throughout her cancer. He looked after her. During this time his mother’s domestic servant left and Zack found a young woman called Agnes to help about the house. Agnes was an orphan from a Catholic convent in a tiny town at the edge of the desert. She had never been in the city before. The nursing agency, which was also Catholic, found her. She hadn’t done well at school so they were sending her out to work. They wanted her in a good home, and didn’t ask Zack or his mother much about their religion. They made arrangements for her to attend the local church. Her wages were minimal. She was sixteen, nearly seventeen, slight and plain, with a common face. She lived in the maid’s quarters outside the house. Stolid, mute and uncomplaining, she helped Zack nurse his mother right up to the end. After she died, Agnes stayed on. She cleaned and cooked. He put up with tasteless convent food, pleased that there was something on the table. If he noticed the half-hearted way that she cleaned, he said nothing about it. He joked with her and found he could make her laugh easily, though her laugh was always nervous.
He started flirting with her. She endured it stoically. He never forced anything.
She found friends, started drinking. Twice he found her in the kitchen blind drunk, hardly able to stand. She spilled a pot of pepper into the soup but served it anyway. She spent time out at night. Strangers visited her in her room. One evening, he stood in the doorway as she was preparing supper. She came through to fetch something but he didn’t move. She squeezed past him, then stopped and pressed herself up against him. He kissed her. They made love. She was very responsive, and her simple face became animated in a way that he had never seen before.
She slept in his bed. She bathed in his bathroom in the morning. He suggested that she move into the house, but she refused. This was the height of the repression, and could have created some problems. They never once mentioned the law.
They became lovers, but she still kept the strange hours and friends, the drinking. Sometimes he bought her little presents and they vanished into her room. She started stealing things. He had to lock his money away. He told her that he loved her. She always looked down.
One night while driving home he saw her standing with the prostitutes on Main Road. He drove past. She turned away when she saw him.
He said nothing to her. They made love with even more passion than before. He drove down the main road every night. Two nights later she was there again.
He parked around the corner a few blocks away and found a place under a tree where he could watch her without being seen. Soon a car pulled up. She went over to it. The man in the passenger’s seat opened the door. She leant over to speak to him. He put his hand up her short skirt. She wiggled on his hand.
At home he became cold and distant, unresponsive to her. Still he said nothing. When she crept into his bed at night, he tried to turn away, but ended up making love anyway. He took to hiding and watching her on the nights when she worked on the streets. Twice he followed cars. Once they went into a block of flats. The other time the car parked on Signal Hill.
She came home with her face badly beaten. He cleaned and bandaged the cuts. He sent her to bed and looked after her. They were very tender. Once when they made love she called him ‘father.’
She went back to the street as soon as she was better. Then one night she didn’t come home. Two days later the police were at the door. They searched the house. They found bloodstains on the sheets from her menstruation. They matched the blood. They arrested him. For three days he was interrogated. They took him to see Agnes’s body. It had thirteen knife wounds in it. He cried and cried. He told the truth until the truth unravelled. Then he told whatever he thought would please them.
One of the other prostitutes talked. They found the murderer. The man had been a pimp and he had killed her over a debt and a matter of territory. They let Zack go, although they had a confession from him. Even sleeping with Agnes had been a crime, but they agreed to look the other way.
He went home. With his parents dead and no siblings, he was a rootless man. His house seemed dangerous and empty. He bought a gun. His work suffered and he lost business. His name had been in the papers.
He drove to the convent where Agnes had been educated. The place was a brick model of an Italian cloister. The mother superior received him in her office. A sad white plaster Jesus looked down from a cross on the wall. Zack told her about Agnes, leaving out the fact that they’d been lovers. The woman heard him in silence, her hands folded on the desk. When he told how Agnes had been stabbed, she crossed herself.
In the end she shrugged. ‘They start with disadvantages. Agnes was brought here when she was nearly four. She was covered with bruises from continual beatings. We never found her parents. As a girl she was stubborn, sullen and rebellious. We tried to correct this, but my feeling is that we got her too late. This is not a new story. We do our best but the pull of the world on our girls is strong. Evil is everywhere’
‘Agnes was not evil.’
‘No, but she was stupid. I remember her. She should have been protected from it.’
‘I tried. Like you. My mother’s death distracted me. I should have watched her more carefully.’
The Mother Superior sighed. ‘Forgive yourself, so that God can forgive you. We do what we can.’
She showed him two photographs. One was a class photo and he couldn’t find her in the group until the woman pointed. Agnes was sitting cross-legged in front. She looked about ten. The other was from a Christmas pageant. It must have been taken shortly before Agnes left. She was dressed as the Virgin Mary, sitting near a crib, wearing blue. The colour was faded.
He took this picture with him when he left. It was night when he drove away and the desert sky was full of stars.
That’s the end of my story. After six months Zack sold everything at a loss and moved to another city. I believe he still lives there.