Vashtar

Vashtar

Joanne Carter was a twenty-six year old single mother. She lived with her seven year old daughter, Jasmine, in a run down seaside town on the South coast of England. She had few qualifications and little work experience but she intended to find a job when Jasmine was older and more able to look after herself. Joanne tried to be realistic about her future prospects, she knew the likelihood of meeting a man, especially one interested in a long term relationship, was slim but she was ever hopeful. It was this hope, combined with a growing loneliness, that blinkered her judgement of John Clayton.

Joanne frequently discussed Clayton with friends during the months following his departure. ‘How could I have been so stupid?’ she would say, ‘He wasn’t even good looking.’ Joanne would laugh at her own stupidity and worry about the effect it had had on her daughter. She was terribly hard on herself.

On the night she met Clayton, Joanne had been celebrating a birthday with a group of girlfriends at a night club. She’d thought twice about going, she wasn’t particularly interested in clubbing and, at twenty-six, she was beginning to feel a little too old for something she’d done regularly before Jasmine was born. Apart from that her confidence was low; she’d had nothing to wear and couldn’t really afford to buy anything. Her mother, concerned about Joanne’s single status, had encouraged her and had countered each excuse her daughter made.

‘Who’ll look after Jasmine?’

‘I will.’

‘I haven’t got anything to wear.’

‘We’ll go out shopping and I’ll buy you something.’

‘I can’t afford to buy drinks.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll treat you.’

Eventually, Joanne relented and the lethargy associated with low confidence began to turn to excitement as she fantasised about meeting an attractive man. Joanne determined to enjoy herself.

The evening kicked off at a friend’s house where they drank and chatted, made each other up, tried on clothes, discussed men and make up, music and sex and gossiped and got blitzed. They ended up at a nightclub, eight of them, drinking and dancing, laughing and flirting.

When a pole dancer took a smoke break one of the group attached herself to the vacated pole and attempted a few moves. She was followed by the other girls who whooped and screamed as they twisted themselves around the pole and attempted various poses before slipping down and collapsing on the floor in drunken puddles of laughter. The demonstrations naturally attracted a group of male onlookers who joined in the fun with bawdy encouragement, shouting crudely, some hoping to attract the girls’ attention, others trying to impress their mates. Somehow, Joanne had ended up talking to one of these spectators as he’d stood shouting with the others.

When she woke the next morning Joanne had a splitting headache. She vaguely remembered the man, remembered kissing him outside the club; sluttish, extravagant kisses. She disapproved of that type of behaviour and the memory caused her to flush with embarrassment which exacerbated the painful throbbing in her head. She thought he’d seemed nice and remembered giving him her number. Later in the morning, when her headache was less severe, she called a friend but the friend was unable to give her much more information other than a recollection of how pissed they’d all been. That afternoon the man texted her. She called her friend back to seek advice. The friend was encouraging.

‘Go on, give it a go. What have you got to lose?’

She texted the man back and after a few exchanges they made arrangements to meet the following Friday.

Joanne felt disappointed when John Clayton turned up. He was shorter than she remembered. His appearance was fairly nondescript;  thinnish rather than slim, mousy lank hair, and he had a slight stoop. He hadn’t made an effort either. He turned up in jeans, trainers and a tee shirt and he looked quite a bit older than she’d remembered. Never mind, she told herself, I’m out now, I might as well enjoy myself. The talk was awkward at first but after a few drinks they loosened up enough to handle a conversation.

He was a mechanic and he had a dog, that’s about all she could get out of him. Each time she asked him about himself he gave a brief answer and then steered the conversation back to her. She took this as a positive sign that he was really interested and this made him seem a little more attractive. She relaxed a little. He laughed at her jokes and paid her compliments. Joanne told him about Jasmine and he said she sounded sweet. After a few more drinks she reviewed her opinion of his looks. She’d initially thought his eyes were beady and sly. She now saw in them a shrewd intelligence, their shape she now thought, had a touch of the exotic.

Clayton took her back to his bedsit which was shabby but Joanne was impressed when he told her he’d almost saved up for a down payment on a flat and that he was doing lots of overtime. His unkempt appearance could now be excused in light of his need to economise. He was looking like a better prospect.

Clayton made coffee and they sat on his sofa and chatted for a few minutes before he summoned the courage to kiss her. Joanne was responsive and Clayton became increasingly passionate until Joanne, well aware of the consequences, pushed him away and asked if he had any protection. Clayton had shaken his head and apologised.

‘I didn’t expect this for the first time’ he said, ‘otherwise I would have bought some.’ Joanne thought this was sweet and respectful and decided she would have sex with him. She picked up her handbag and fumbled around for a while. Before leaving her flat that evening she’d located a packet of condoms in a bedside drawer. The last time she’d used them was two years ago. There were two rubbers left in the packet. Why not? She’d asked herself, enjoying the frisson as she’d slipped them in her handbag.

Clayton was surprised when she produced the packet.

‘Blimey, talk about being prepared. Is this a regular thing for you?’

Joanne attempted to dispel the suggestion of promiscuity.

‘You won’t believe this but they’re about two years old, I hope they’re okay.’

Clayton raised his eyebrows and then got undressed. They fucked. It was a brief union. For Joanne, it was disappointing but she told herself it was only to be expected. It was, after all, their first time. There’d been an awkward post coital silence that she assumed was partly to do with Clayton’s performance and she felt a bit sorry for him. Must be awkward for a bloke. She’d left the flat shortly after the event.

When she woke the next morning she texted her friend with a brief update. Her friend called later and Joanne embellished the details of her night out. ‘He’s funny, kind, hard working, saving for a flat …’ She didn’t mention his slight body odour or cigarette stained teeth.

Joanne had several more dates with Clayton. They were a little disappointing and the conversation was always awkward until they’d had a few drinks. But Clayton was nice and attentive and Joanne convinced herself that she could influence the way he dressed. She invited him for lunch.

When Clayton came round he brought a present for Jasmine. Things were looking up. They began to talk about the future and discovered that they had similar ambitions. He wanted to look after Joanne and Jasmine and to build his future with them. Joanne suggested he move in instead of paying rent for the flat and they could save quicker to get their own place.

Jasmine felt uncomfortable with Clayton, his eyes never smiled. She was too young to articulate her feelings and Joanne interpreted her daughter’s apparent indifference as a natural wariness. The only man Jasmine had really known, reasoned Joanne, was her grandad. Clayton was doing his best, and Joanne was confident that Jasmine would get used to him.

To encourage Jasmine, Joanne bought her a large pink elephant that she spotted in a toy shop on the High Street. When she picked Jasmine up from school she primed her as they made their way home. ‘You’ll never guess what happened to me today?’

‘What?’

‘I was stopped by a gypsy woman. She was selling lucky heather but when she saw me she shouted for me to come over. She took me by the arm and whispered in my ear.’ Joanne stopped walking, bent her head towards Jasmine’s ear and whispered, ‘ “Your  life is about to change, good things will happen to you and I have something to give you.’’ And do you know what? She gave me a pink elephant. Can you believe that? She said, “It is for your daughter.” I said, “How do you know I’ve got a daughter?” And she said, “I know many things.” She told me the elephant came from the East where magic is very strong. She said he had magic powers to protect homes and make families happy.’

‘Wow,’ said Jasmine, shaking her head with wonder, ‘Where is it?’

‘I’ve left him safe at home. His name’s Vashtar.’

‘Why is he called Vashtar?’

‘Because it’s an Eastern name.’

When they got home Joanne gave the pink elephant to Jasmine who squeezed it to her chest and buried her face in its pink furry covering.

‘Oh mummy he’s so warm and soft.’

‘That’s his magic powers working. He’s a happy home maker.’

‘Do you think John will like him?’

‘I’m sure he will,’ said Joanne, feeling rather pleased with herself.

The first sign came about a month after Clayton had moved in. He came home late one evening, smelling strongly of drink, and Joanne berated him, mildly, for missing dinner. He was standing at the kitchen sink and he turned and slapped her across the face; well it was more of a belt than a slap, heavier, more forceful.

‘Don’t you dare question me again, got it?’

Joanne was stunned and frightened. Clayton went into the living room to watch television and Joanne went in later to ask him what she’d done but he was staring at the screen, his narrow eyes blazing, so she left him alone. He didn’t come to bed that evening, he slept on the couch.

The next morning Clayton brought her a cup of tea in bed and apologised, again and again. He sat on the bed and cried.

‘My God can you ever forgive me? I’m under so much pressure at work, I’m so sorry.’

At first, Joanne paid him no attention, she was still frightened and just wanted him to leave. But he was persistent. He begged her forgiveness and told her how precious she was. Clayton rang work to tell them he was sick and he took Joanne out and they talked and she forgave him. She didn’t mention the incident to anyone else. It was a one off and nobody else’s business.

A week later he came in drunk again and beat her up. When Clayton finished his assault, Joanne managed to grab her petrified daughter and retreat into her bedroom where she locked themselves in. Clayton kicked the door menacingly several times, but this was more to frighten and intimidate them as his assault on Joanne had sufficiently exorcised his anger. Joanne stayed awake all night; her phone was in the other room so she couldn’t call the police. In the morning Clayton was contrite and pleaded to be let into the bedroom but Joanne hugged Jasmine and repeatedly refused. She was frightened and didn’t know what to do.

That evening, when Clayton came home from work he couldn’t get in. Joanne had locked the door and put the chain on. She shouted at him and told him to go away. He pleaded with her but Joanne wouldn’t open the door and as she watched through the spy hole she saw the look on his face change from sly determination to sneering anger. He began kicking the door, forcefully. Convinced of the door’s sturdiness Joanne had stood her ground, expecting Clayton to give up. But the door suddenly gave way and she screamed as he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into the sitting room where Jasmine, who had been happily playing on the floor, was now sitting, transfixed, a terrified stare on her face. Clayton threw Joanne on the sofa. His eyes and nose were screwed up and his upper lip had retracted revealing yellow, ratty teeth.

‘You fucking whore,’ he hissed, ‘Is that it? Treat me like a bit of cock on the side and then get rid of me? You fucking whore. I saw the way you and your fucking whore friends were showing off on the pole, spreading their legs for everyone to see, prick teasing. Fucking bitches. How many men have you fucked? You’re a whore, a prick teasing whore. And carrying packets of condoms round with you ready to be fucked anytime, any day, you fucking slag. Now you want to get rid of me? And whose fucking kid is that? Can’t remember? Don’t know?’ Clayton turned to Jasmine. ‘What are you looking at? You little whore, just like your whore mother.’

He began undoing his trousers. Joanne thought he was going to rape her in front of Jasmine, but Clayton was simply undoing his belt which he pulled impatiently through the loops whilst keeping his eyes trained on his victim. He folded the belt in two and began to thrash Joanne with it. At first, the thrashing was uncontrolled and vicious and Joanne screamed and shrieked as the belt bit into her flesh. But once Clayton had released his initial frustrations he became aware that, as Joanne’s flesh numbed, his lashes were becoming less effective. He adjusted his strokes accordingly, delivering them with less anger but more spite. When Joanne tried to protect one part of herself he slashed her on an unshielded area. Between each stroke he would stop, momentarily, to enjoy the look of terror on her face, to listen to her whimpering entreaties and to give her brief hope that the assault had ended. Jasmine watched her mother’s ordeal in terrified silence.

When Clayton heard the siren he stopped his assault.

‘If you say a fucking word you and that little bastard will be in for it, got it?’ His ratty eyes blazed with resentment.

When the police came in he was polite and acquiescent.

‘Yes officer we did have an argument but it’s all okay now isn’t it love?’

Joanne didn’t speak, she was too frightened. The police officer looked at Jasmine who was quietly sobbing in a corner of the room. ‘You okay sweetheart?’ he asked with a kindly smile.

Jasmine nodded her head and said, ‘But mummy’s not, he hurt her.’

The policeman turned his gaze toward Clayton. ‘Is that right?’ The officer’s face was impassive but there was contempt in his eyes.

‘No officer, I haven’t hurt anyone, but we did have an argument because I was in late from work, because I have to work overtime and Joanne got a bit excited and she began shouting and hitting me so I had to hold her arms.’ He was shrugging his shoulders as he spoke in a kind of, ‘You must have a wife you know what they’re like’ way.

Clayton was arrested, handcuffed and taken to the police car. One of the police officers returned and spoke quietly, his voice reassuring.

‘You’re safe now, you can tell me what happened.’

Joanne broke down and began to sob, uncontrollably. Jasmine put her arms around her mother and told her that it would be alright. Eventually, Joanne managed to tell the police officer what had happened. The officer examined her arms and legs and took some photos. He said she’d need to go to hospital to get a proper examination and then he spoke to Jasmine and reassured her. He rang Joanne’s mother and asked her to come over. After offering further reassurance the officer picked Clayton’s belt off the floor and left.

Later, a female officer  turned up and took a statement from Joanne. Joanne told the officer about the previous attacks and how frightened she was. The officer took more photos and said they would like to carry out a special interview with Jasmine the next day as it was important to get witness evidence from her. Later, the police came and told her that Clayton had been charged and kept in custody to appear in court the next day. They asked if they could let the neighbours know what had happened so they could phone the police if he returned. Joanne wasn’t keen. She felt a little humiliated at the thought of her neighbours knowing but the officers said it was just a precautionary measure should the court release him and in any case the neighbours already knew, they were the ones that had called the police when Clayton was kicking and shouting outside her door. So Joanne relented.

‘He’s a nasty bit of work, that one,’ said one of the police officers and Joanne had the feeling they’d dealt with Clayton before.

The next day a lady rang her and said she was a Witness Support Officer and told Joanne that Clayton had pleaded not guilty at court and had been released but with conditions that would ensure Joanne and Jasmine were protected until his case was due to be heard. The court had told Clayton that he must not contact Joanne in any way, shape or form, which included sending her texts or e mails or sending messages through other people. They’d also told Clayton to stay away from the vicinity of her address.

‘If Clayton breaks these conditions,’ said the Witness Support Officer, ‘then he’ll be arrested and taken back to court.’

Joanne didn’t feel particularly reassured by the courts restrictions, but there was nothing she could do about it.

As the days went by Jasmine became increasingly nervous, anxious and clingy. She wouldn’t sleep in her own bedroom and on several occasions she wet the bed.

One evening, as Joanne was cuddling Jasmine on her lap, Jasmine asked:

‘Mummy, why didn’t Vashtar protect us? He was supposed to make our house happy. Why did he let John hurt you?’

Joanne silently cursed.

‘Well, if you remember, I was already seeing John before I brought Vashtar home. But I think he was keeping an eye on us from the moment he came to the house. Remember when the police came and took John away when he was so angry? I think Vashtar had a part to play in that. After all, how did the police know we were in trouble? They told me they got a phone call but they didn’t know who it was from. I wonder whether Vashtar had something to do with it? Whether, somehow, his magic worked to get the police here to help us?’ Joanne reached over and picked up Vashtar from the end of the sofa. She pressed the toy into her daughter’s chest. ‘Here, cuddle him.’ And as Jasmine did so Joanne said, ‘There, can’t you feel how warm and strong he is? I think he’s been looking after us and he’ll carry on making sure we’re safe and protected and no one can harm us. He is from the East,’ she whispered, ‘where magic is very, very powerful. He’ll look after us.’

Jasmine hugged Vashtar tightly to her chest and she nodded.  That night Jasmine slept in her own room.

Three weeks went by and things gradually returned to normal. And then, one Sunday lunch time, whilst Joanne and Jasmine were enjoying a meal with Vashtar, there was a knock on the door. Joanne went to answer it but checked the spyhole first. She saw Clayton.

‘Go away, you’re not supposed to be here.’ Her tone was brusque and dismissive but she felt sick with fear.

‘I just want to talk.’

‘Well, say what you want to say and then go away.’                                              Clayton’s voice had been placatory, but his words sounded a little slurred. Joanne pressed her eye to the spyhole. Clayton looked as though he’d been drinking. His eyes seemed glazed and his lower jaw lolled as he focussed on what he should say.

‘I can’t say it out here. Come on, let me in, just for a minute. I want to say I’m sorry, I can’t do it here with everyone listening.’

‘If you don’t go away I’ll call the police.’

Clayton became abusive and began kicking the door.

Joanne turned to Jasmine who was standing by the side of the sofa, clutching the pink elephant tightly to her chest. She looked terrified. ‘Stay there,’ said Joanne, trying to sound composed and reassuring, ‘mummy’ll look after you.’

There were several loud, cracking noises as the door gave way and Clayton appeared; his bloodshot ratty eyes and his twisted face exuded hatred.

Joanne pleaded.

‘Please leave us alone, we haven’t done anything. Please leave us.’

‘Bitch. Fucking bitch,’ screamed Clayton. He launched himself at Joanne delivering a flurry of vicious punches to her head until she fell onto the sofa, unconscious. He then rushed out of the flat and returned holding a can, impatiently trying to unscrew the top.

Jasmine tentatively approached Clayton faithfully holding out the pink elephant in an attempt to ward off the evil that confronted her.

Clayton sneered. He threw the top of the can away, snatched the elephant from Jasmine’s outstretched arms and swiped her, viciously, across the head with it. He held Vashtar inches from Jasmine’s frightened face and began to douse the elephant with petrol.

‘Let’s show you what your whore of a mother is going to look like in a few minutes, shall we?’ he taunted.

Jasmine, too terrified to speak, watched in silence as Vashtar’s pink fur darkened and flattened as it absorbed the petrol. The faint sound of a siren distracted Clayton. He stood still and listened as the noise became louder. He put down the can of petrol and was about to put down the elephant when he noted the hopeful look on Jasmine’s face.  He stuffed the elephant into his half unbuttoned shirt leaving Vashtar’s head and trunk exposed.

‘Please don’t hurt him,’ whispered Jasmine as she watched the imprisoned Vashtar disappear into the kitchen. Clayton returned holding a carving knife just as two police officers appeared at the doorway.

Clayton moved towards them brandishing the knife.

‘Come on then cunts, let’s see how hard you are.’

The police officers had taken in the scene; Jasmine’s frightened state and her mother’s prone body.

‘Put the knife down,’ one of them shouted whilst drawing what appeared to be a gun from his belt. He pointed the weapon at Clayton and Jasmine saw a small red dot of light appear, dancing, like a jittery Tinkerbell, on Clayton’s chest. Clayton started to speak but the officer fired the gun. Two strands of wire shot out of the gun’s barrel and embedded themselves in Clayton’s chest delivering a powerful jolt of electricity which threw him onto the floor. Vashtar’s pink head and trunk wobbled in a synchronised dance with Clayton’s convulsing body before bursting into flames. The flames consumed Clayton’s petrol soaked shirt and Jasmine watched, fascinated, as Vachtar’s large head and trunk curled up in a triumphant, trumpeting motion that seemed to celebrate Clayton’s screams as the flames engulfed him.

The police officers, unprepared for such a scenario, at first stood watching in disbelief, then panic set in. One of the officers rushed into the kitchen, whilst the other ran towards the living room window where he pulled down the curtains and attempted to smother Clayton. His colleague came out of the kitchen carrying a saucepan of water which he threw over Clayton’s head. Soon, more police officers and an ambulance crew appeared. Clayton was taken away on a stretcher. Joanne was taken to hospital and Jasmine was taken to stay with her grandparents.

Clayton’s burns were described in a police press release as ‘life threatening’. He spent several days in hospital but eventually died of shock.

Joanne did what she could to try and get things back to normal.  She bought another pink elephant which Jasmine welcomed with a curiously knowing smile.

Joanne’s mother said that children were resilient and she assured her that Jasmine would suffer no long lasting effects; but a social worker suggested that Jasmine might need long term counselling. Joanne didn’t know what to think. Jasmine did seem quieter, more withdrawn, and she’d developed an unnerving habit of throwing her head back, curling a trunk-like arm in front of her face and screaming. She said it made Vashtar laugh.

Joanne’s concerns were unwarranted. Her association with Clayton had not damaged her daughter in any way. Quite the reverse. Jasmine’s unnerving habit was simply a celebration of Vashtar’s victory. Jasmine’s quieter demeanour was not the sign of a developing neurosis but a reflection of an inward serenity, a type of serenity often associated with the spiritually enlightened. Jasmine had developed an unshakable faith in the power of an Eastern god.