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Precious Illusions

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PRECIOUS ILLUSIONS

PART ONE

“Once – you won’t remember – if you said ‘Hollywood’, hers was the face you’d think of...”

Those words from Max, spoken with such reverence and respect, had stayed with him in the days since moving into the room above the garage.  It was the first sign of real emotion he’d seen from the formidable older gentleman, who was clearly devoted to his mistress and honestly believed that Joe Gillis was too young to remember the great Norma Desmond from her glory days.

But Joe did remember her, just barely.

He’d seen his fair share of movies as a boy – after all, those gangster flicks he’d been so fond of during his teenage years were what prompted him to be a screenwriter.  He had never been particularly interested in being in front of the camera, but the thought of seeing his name up there in the on-screen credits had spurred him to follow his instinct, back in the days when he thought ambition would be enough.

For the most part, Joe remembered the Talkies – the medium Norma so detested – but during his early childhood he had experienced a few of the old silent epics.  He had been too young to really understand what was going on, but he vividly recalled how his mother had been staring enthralled at the screen, tears streaming down her face, as she gazed at the flickering images with a faraway expression.

In fact, Joe’s mother had been a huge fan of the silver screen.  She owned albums upon albums, crammed full of photographs, news clippings and ticket stubs, which once upon a time she had shown to him, telling him all about the movie stars and the pictures they’d made.  Much of it went over his head, but it was a fond memory: curled up on the sofa by lamplight, flicking through the pages of those albums.

Her tastes changed over the years, the silent stars being replaced by newer faces – Judy Garland, Vivien Leigh, and countless others, all of them portrayed in glorious Technicolor.  The old albums made way for the new, and were relegated to a disused bookcase in the attic.

Joe found them whilst trawling through the attic one summer afternoon, looking for his catcher’s mitt – or rather, the albums found him, toppling off a shelf and falling open at his feet, scattering their contents from stiff pages where the glue had dried out with age.  He gave them only a cursory glance before placing the album back on the shelf where it had come from, but another photograph became dislodged and fluttered to the floor.

It was an early publicity shot of Norma Desmond: pale and monochromatic and beautiful, staring longingly towards some invisible horizon.  He could not help but be drawn to the photograph’s subject, though he did not know who she was.  Determined to find out, he flicked through the album to see where the picture had been displayed – his mother was fastidiously organised when it came to labelling the various items – but the earlier activity had jumbled everything, rendering her effectively anonymous.

Try as he might, he could not shift the image of her: at the age of eleven, he was already spellbound.

Until Max had inadvertently jogged his memory, Joe had cast that experience to some distant recess of his brain.  “Once… you won’t remember…”   But heaven help him – he remembered.

—N|J—

The script was slow going – like driving his already-injured car through a tar-slick.

To begin with, it seemed an impossible task.  Norma was so terrified of her vision being butchered that she seemed immune to any advice; Joe wondered, on more than one occasion, quite what she was actually paying him for if she wasn’t going to allow him to edit it down.  He removed page after page of silent exposition, then grudgingly put them back again, crumbling under her gaze.

Whilst he worked, she would regale him with anecdotes about her early career – reciting them as though they had happened only yesterday.  During these moments, he found the work easier: he could easily distract her halfway through one of her stories, make a suggestion about whatever scene he was working on, and she would agree with a somewhat dismissive wave, eager to resume the tale.  Before long, things were picking up speed.

Maybe it was the days – weeks? – of exposure to her scrawling, meandering opus, but Joe was finally starting to appreciate what Norma was trying to achieve with it.  Parts of it – he hated to admit it – were almost decent; she certainly had an eye for setting the scene.  That the story of Salome could have been told in ninety minutes – not the four hours she had envisaged – was a minor point to contend with.

The finish line began to approach, slowly but steadily.  The multiple ribbon-bound parcels Joe had started out with had now dwindled into a much smaller and more manageable package, neatly typed and gathered into a tidy pile.  Joe felt the light at the end of the tunnel growing brighter, and he tackled the remaining pages with a renewed enthusiasm.

Over time, there was a definite change to the atmosphere in the house.  On Joe’s arrival it had seemed a ghostly, melancholy place, shrouded in shadows and decidedly eerie.  The circumstances into which he’d arrived had not helped: the undertaker turning up and that bizarre-yet-solemn funeral.  With just the three of them rattling around, everywhere was deathly quiet – apart from that windy organ, of course – which meant that Joe found himself trying to fill the silence.  Norma had no end of anecdotes, and was more than willing to share them; as the days passed, Joe began to ask her questions – trying to understand the past life she was still so desperately clinging to.

In truth, he had been a little star-struck at first; regardless of whether Norma was forgotten these days, she was nonetheless a once-great star of the Silver Screen, and Joe occasionally had to remind himself of that.  If the lush surroundings were not enough of a clue, the sheer extent of her memorabilia collection was an occasionally-unwelcome jolt of reality.  It didn’t take long, however, as he was drawn closer into her world, for Joe to begin to feel more comfortable in her presence, and to see her not as some distant icon on a pedestal, but an actual person: a human being with hopes and fears, just like everyone else.

He was comfortable enough, in fact, that a discussion one evening around cutting a particularly verbose and needless scene from Salome turned into a full-scale argument.  Max came rushing when he heard the raised voices, expecting to find Norma either distraught or furious – what he found instead was the two of them standing on either side of Joe’s desk, their faces mere inches apart as they bickered.  Neither of them was willing to back down, as they gesticulated at each other with increasing fervour, and Joe was unleashing the full range of his pent-up frustration with the script using as much sarcasm as he could muster.

In fact, the only victim of the scene was Norma’s pared-down masterpiece, which got caught in the crossfire and cascaded to the floor.  It was this which stopped the altercation in its tracks, both of them watching with dismay as the neatly-organised sheets scattered across the tiled floor.  The fire beneath the cauldron fizzled out immediately, the two of them merely staring at each other in surprise at what had just elapsed.  Then finally, the tension was dispelled, a rumble of laughter erupting from Joe as the ridiculousness of the situation dawned on him.  It wasn’t long before Norma was smiling, too.  Max stood as still as a general, baffled beyond comprehension.

“I’m sorry,” Joe managed to say eventually, “I don’t know what came over me.”

“So am I,” admitted Norma, to his astonishment.  “You were right, of course.  I should know to trust your judgement by now.  It’s just so difficult, Joe: this is so important to me and—”

“I know.  And I’m trying to be gentle with it.  I promise.”

With Max’s assistance, they began to collect up the pages, which were by now completely muddled.  Joe suggested taking them back to his room over the garage so he could reorganise them, ready for the next morning’s efforts, which Norma was thankfully amenable to.  With three pairs of hands, they made short work of the task.  Then, both he and Norma reached for the final page simultaneously, their hands colliding and then hesitating.

Both of their gazes fixed on the point of contact, neither of them quite sure who should move away first.  Max had also frozen in place, staring levelly at them, before finally straightening and placing the gathered sheets on Joe’s makeshift desk.  It was this movement which eventually distracted them.  Their eyes met; Joe moved his hand away from Norma’s; after another second or two she picked up the offending page, handed it over, announced that she was tired, and disappeared upstairs.

Joe’s later task, re-reading the jumbled pages to put them back together, was ultimately prolonged by his thoughts constantly returning to their accidental touch – or more accurately, their hesitation – and Norma’s sudden departure.  He found himself oddly preoccupied by it, falling into a restless sleep merely one-third of the way into Salome.

The next day, the air was clearer; there was a tangible change between them.  It took Joe another day or so to finally work out what that change was.  Simply put, he was no longer having to remind himself of who Norma was, but rather that she was merely a person: a person who, despite himself, he was rapidly starting to consider a friend.  From that point on, she accepted his advice with far less argument; and he allowed himself the luxury, on occasion, of indulging in a little amicable criticism.

—N|J—

Of course, it wasn’t all business.

Once or twice a week, she would host their own private movie screening, right in the living room.  This generally occurred without warning or ceremony: Max would cross the room, tug on the velvet rope which lifted the oil painting up into the ceiling to reveal the white screen beneath, and then wheel out the projector.  On more than one occasion, Joe had been typing away only to have the lights turned out unexpectedly.

Norma had made a lot of movies in her heyday, but only four or five of them ever made an appearance in the house.  The Ordeal of Joan of Arc, though quite obviously a masterpiece, was certainly not one of Joe’s favourites.  Nonetheless, he knew better than to argue: Max stood, stoic and silent, at the projector, but at the first sign of any potential escape by Joe, he would cross his arms in a vaguely threatening manner and shake his head.  So Joe endured, for Norma’s sake – helped along by a generous serving of a vintage single malt.

It was during these moments that he began to realise the extent of Norma’s fragility.  They could have the most productive of afternoons – Joe’s editing progressing unhindered, perhaps even a shared joke or two – but as soon as the lights dimmed and the screen was flickering above them, Norma would fall into silent contemplation.

She would reach out to him, latching onto his arm or resting a hand on his knee; occasionally her head would drift slowly towards his shoulder.  It made him uncomfortable, to start with.  It didn’t seem appropriate; no matter that they had managed to form a tentative friendship, Norma was his employer first and foremost.  He did not want to encourage anything, nor did he have any desire to hurt her; it was a difficult balancing act.

Most of the time, there would be a brief pause where Norma would move away, reaching for a cigarette, and he could quietly angle himself in the other direction or get up to pour himself another drink.  She would be lost in her own world, barely noticing his presence even when she sought him out, to the extent that he sometimes wondered who she thought he was – if anyone at all.

This evening’s showing of Joan of Arc was proving much the same as the others; he’d seen it so often that he practically knew the title cards by heart, and instead he found his attention drawn to Norma.  She seemed particularly melancholy as she watched the screen, occasionally mouthing the words to herself in silence.  Then she half-turned to him, launching into a muted-yet-passionate diatribe about the Golden Era of cinema and her dream of a return.  It culminated in her rising from the sofa to gesture dramatically at the screen, her figure blocking the light from the projector and casting a shadow across the image of her younger self.

At any other time, Joe would have been amused by the irony of that… but he did not feel much like laughing.  Between the dimness and the flickering light, she made a striking vision, standing proud and determined against the black-and-white production.  This was not Norma, his employer and unexpected acquaintance: this was Norma Desmond, famed star of yesteryear, the face that broke a million hearts.  For the briefest of moments, she was lost in the illusion… and then, the façade suddenly cracked, revealing instead the very human woman beneath.

Her face reflected the barest flicker of realisation as she returned to the sofa.  She did not acknowledge Joe at all, and seemed to have forgotten he was there.  She said nothing else, merely fixed her gaze on the screen once more, staring up at the picture with a wistful, distant expression.

Joe experienced a pang of sadness as he watched her.  He could not quite call it pity, because her plight was tangible enough that he almost felt it himself.  He had grown fond of her, he realised with a sudden acknowledgement, and it was difficult to see her in such a state: lost and slightly far away.  He would feel the same way for anyone in that position, especially someone he had come to think of as a friend.

He was overcome by the desire to comfort her, but she seemed so detached from reality that he didn’t want to startle her.  A measure of self-consciousness also prevented him from merely reaching out to wrap an arm around her shoulders.  Instead, the best he could offer was to carefully untangle one of her hands from the other where they were clasped in her lap, and gently hold it in his own.  He examined her face for any kind of reaction, but she remained fixated on the screen; nevertheless, when his fingers squeezed hers involuntarily, she tightened her grip on his hand.

When the next movie rolled around, and Norma customarily reached for his arm in the darkness, he did not try to move away.

—N|J—

He probably should have realised that it would never be as simple as just editing the script and going on his way.  It had been nearly two months since he’d driven his limping car into her garage, and there was still no sign of the money he’d been promised – Norma assured him she was ferreting it away into a piggy bank somewhere, and he would receive it all once the job was finished, but in the meantime she was continuing to pay the rent on his old apartment for the duration of his stay.  In real terms, he was paid in practical benefits: a roof over his head, occasionally good company, hearty meals and an endless supply of champagne.

Nevertheless, the walls of that house on Sunset were starting to close in on him.  Apart from his one little excursion to Schwab’s, he had barely left the place since his arrival.  Max had made it quite clear that there were rules to be followed, unspoken but set in stone; Joe simply did not have the liberty to wander off whenever he felt like it.  Those tiny cracks in Norma’s façade were multiplying by the day; if she needed him for anything, he would have to be there.

His encounter at Schwab’s had definitely been interesting.  Artie’s girl – Betty Schaefer, the “studio smart-ass” – was adamant that she could turn Blind Windows into something big, and her enthusiasm was contagious.  Quite obviously, he did not have the freedom to write it with her, so he’d given her the story and some ground rules and sent her away again.  She seemed a sweet kid – if she could make the story work, then good luck to her – but he had a feeling Norma would not appreciate him working on another script while he was still trudging through hers. 

Finally, however, after seven long weeks, the editing job was completed.  Joe had to admit to feeling a little proud of himself.   The script was still hopeless – not a single line of dialogue to be found – but he’d managed to streamline it significantly, and the finished article gave the illusion of being a proper screenplay, at the very least.

He presented the final version for Norma in much the same manner as she had first introduced him to it: neatly bound in ribbon.  He left it for her to find in pride of place on the mantelpiece, propped up between two of her old publicity shots, then went about his business for the evening: getting lost in a novel until he could slope off to bed.

When she wandered through into the living room an hour or so later, she spotted immediately that something was out of place, and headed over for a closer look.

“What’s this, Joe?”

He peered up at her from behind the book.  “What do you think it is?”

She reached for the bundle of papers, examining the front page with a hushed reverence as she traced one finger across the typed title.  “Salome?

“Yes,” he clarified.  “It’s all finished.”

“It’s so small…”

“Don’t worry.  I haven’t taken anything out without your knowledge.  Everything’s as we discussed.”

He gave up on the novel as a lost cause, saving his place with a bookmark and placing it on the arm of the chair.  He was starting to learn, after the weeks of working together, when Norma needed a little more time and patience than usual.  He maintained a level of lightness to his tone, jovial without being sarcastic, and tried to be encouraging.

“I told you I’d be gentle with it.”

“Yes… you did.”  She looked for a moment as though she wanted to untie the ribbon and flick through the pages, but she resisted, clearly deciding to read it in private later.  Instead, she hugged the manuscript against her chest, battling valiantly against emotions which threatened to overwhelm her.  “Thank you, Joe.”

There were unshed tears glimmering in her eyes.  Joe felt a familiar pang of sympathy and concern, strong enough to draw him out of the chair and approach her.

“Hey, now…  What’s wrong?”

She attempted a brave smile, for his sake.  “Nothing.  I’m just being silly.”

“Norma, whatever it is, you can tell me.”

She debated internally for several seconds, before eventually deciding to come out with it.

“All this time, I’ve wanted De Mille to make this picture... and now I’m one step closer to that dream.  I couldn’t have done it on my own, Joe… I couldn’t have done it without you.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her that De Mille directing her picture was a distant and unlikely ambition.  He had occasionally attempted to make her see reason in that regard, but she would brush him off, still under the illusion that De Mille was idly waiting around for Norma Desmond to step out of the shadows again so they could make the greatest picture the world had ever seen.  It didn’t matter how far they had come in reducing her great saga into a manageable drama; there were certain things Norma was blindly, ignorantly stubborn about.

She seemed very small and fragile in that moment – clutching her precious screenplay to herself as though it were a lifeline.  Joe knew that the illusion could not continue indefinitely – eventually, she would have to be made to understand that the world had moved on – but for now, his decency overruled his conscience.  Norma was gazing at him with an unreadable expression, her eyes shining; that memory which Max had dredged up suddenly struck him again, the long-forgotten photograph of his childhood, and his heart constricted unexpectedly.

He reached for a handkerchief at the exact second she finally lost the battle against her emotions, her head dropping out of embarrassment as the tears she was trying so hard to hold back flowed silently down her face.  She was too distracted to notice him offering the handkerchief to her, and he was momentarily at a loss as to what to do for the best.  He did not want Max to stumble upon this scene and think the worst.

After a second’s indecision, he reached out to touch her hand where it still held the manuscript, the contact drawing her back to him.  She raised her head with a somewhat curious expression, looking with some befuddlement between Joe and the handkerchief but not making any move to take it.  Before he knew what was happening, he was extending the handkerchief to gently dry her tears; it was only then that Norma regained some awareness and took it from him.  She regarded him with surprise, at first, but something softened in her expression and a little alarm bell went off in his head. 

What was he doing?

Joe took a step back, away from Norma, out of the spell she was slowly casting.  She did not follow, and in the subsequent pause Joe took a second to clear his head.

“Well, I’ll… I’ll let you give it a read-through,” he managed to say.

Norma nodded, but did not answer.

He made an excuse to vacate the room, heading as quickly as he could to the front door and the garage room beyond.  The air felt damp and cool, foretelling the oncoming rain of the next few weeks; he took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly, listening to the singing of the crickets and the distant cars passing on the road – reminders that there was life outside the confines of Norma’s shadowy mansion.

He didn’t know what had come over him; the surge of protectiveness towards Norma was not unfamiliar, but it had never hit him quite so intensely as that before.  Her face had been completely unreadable – or maybe he just wasn’t paying enough attention – but he hoped she hadn’t gotten the wrong impression from his unexpectedly tender gesture.

Joe had not expected to fall into friendship with Norma, and he suspected she hadn’t either – and yet, it had grown naturally out of their somewhat unnatural living arrangements.  Regardless, he could not stay on indefinitely.  The script was finished and he needed to be on his way.  Breaking that news would have to wait until a better day.

Feeling somewhat saner, Joe made his way towards the garage stairs; along the way, he was sure he caught a glimpse of Norma, watching him silently from an upstairs room, behind a curtain.

—N|J—

A few days later, the first of many changes occurred.  December rolled in on the tide of a downpour, destroying the roof of Joe’s garage room and resulting in him being moved, possessions and all, into the main house.  If he’d anticipated it, he could have used the incident as an excuse to return to his apartment… as it transpired, events moved so quickly that he barely had time to think.

He tried to protest about the room Norma chose for him, especially when he learned its official title.  It was far too grandiose, in his opinion, and there were plenty of other, smaller, less elaborate guest rooms he could have made use of, with far less terrifying connotations attached.  But Max had quietly explained that Norma wanted him close to her: she was experiencing night terrors, he said, when she would call out for Joe in the darkness or even start to wander the house, searching for him.

On the proviso that he might only be resident at the house for another week or so, Joe had eventually, reluctantly agreed.  At least the room was dry, with a comfortable bed and no rising damp.

Oddly, in all of Norma’s anecdotes about her earlier life, she had never mentioned being married even once, let alone three times.  Joe would have thought that an important detail to raise, but Norma seemed to have dismissed it entirely.  Max was infuriatingly unforthcoming with any further information when questioned.  Joe made a mental note to do some research at a later date, if he ever managed to get out of the place.

Soon enough, she announced that she would be sending the script to De Mille.  Joe took the opportunity this news provided as a means of escape – Norma seemed in high spirits that morning, buoyed by her excitement about the script finally being where it needed to be.  Surely she would be amenable to him getting back to his own life, now that his work was finished.

It turned out he had horribly misjudged the situation.  As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he saw the panic descend.  Norma froze in place, wringing her hands in anguish, as she pleaded with him to stay a little longer.  It was just the first draft, she said; she needed his support; of course he could stay on with full salary. 

“Norma, it’s not the money—“

He couldn’t finish the sentence.  Norma had lost the ability to speak and had started hyperventilating, unable to catch her breath properly, the panic taking over completely.  He had no idea what to do for the best and he briefly considered running to fetch Max, before acknowledging that leaving her alone at a time like this would only make things worse.

Even as he made his next decision, he wondered if he might regret it.

Joe took a step forward, watching intently; some of the panic in Norma’s expression dissipated when she noticed him approach.  He reached out tentatively with one hand, resting it against her own before carefully unravelling her entwined fingers enough that he could properly grasp her hand.  His other came to rest against her upper arm, and he realised she was shaking.

“I guess I can stay until we get some sort of news from Paramount.”

Within a few moments, her breathing returned to normal, the terror leaving her face.  She held tightly to him, not wanting to let go; the hand against her arm rubbed gently, comfortingly, until she eventually stopped trembling.

“Thank you, Joe…”

He gave a small nod, his expression thoughtful, and made to walk away.  He found himself halted by Norma’s grip on his hand, and paused, turning to look at her.

“Thank you,” she repeated, more softly, meeting his gaze.  Something flashed briefly in her eyes, too fast for him to identify before she managed to suppress it again.  She regarded him silently, challenging him to comment on it… and then she released him.  A second later, she swept off in the opposite direction to find Max, almost as though nothing had happened.

Joe felt the quicksand begin to pull him down.

 To be continued...

Chapter Text

PART TWO

March, 1950 – four months later…

There had still been no word from Paramount.  That was the least of Joe’s problems now.

When he had a moment to himself – which was rare – he would take stock of his situation and justify to himself that the outcome of the events which had occurred had been inevitable, that there was nothing he could have done to change things.

In truth, he felt a fool for not seeing it coming – or not acknowledging, at the very least, that he played his own part in Norma’s delusions.  His first mistake had been to show weakness when it came to her rapidly fluctuating emotions, but if he’d anticipated what would happen…  Well, it was too late to dwell on that now.  He should have listened to the down-to-earth cynic in his head, rather than allowing his heart to run away with him.

He had never meant to hurt her.  He had never meant for her to hurt herself.  Everything happened so quickly, on that fateful night, that he didn’t have time to stop and think about Norma: he was too busy thinking about himself.  How had he let things go so far?  How had he not seen it coming?

He asked himself these questions every day, and could not answer them.  He should have seen it coming, and had been in denial for weeks.  The possibility was crazy: why would Norma have fallen for him, of all people?  She couldn’t have done; it was ridiculous.  And yet, there it was: that humble admission on New Year’s Eve which had sent him fleeing into the night and straight to Artie’s apartment, only for him to return to her an hour later…

The scars had faded now, just about… but when she’d first healed enough for the bandages to come off, the angry red marks were a constant reminder of the wreckage Joe had wrought.  The guilt kept eating away at him – he had not really believed her capable, despite Max’s warnings – and God help him, that protective streak which had been the cause of the whole mess would not back down in the face of Norma’s act of desperation.

Norma would see sense, eventually.  She had to.  They couldn’t carry on indefinitely.  Joe didn’t want to break her heart – he was still fond of her, though things were admittedly more complicated than they had been – but he thought it might become an inevitability nonetheless, and he had a feeling neither of them would emerge from it unscathed. 

For now, however, there was relative harmony.

Norma was curled up beside him on the sofa, cuddled up against his side as he attempted to read a book.  Max stood guard by the drinks trolley, hands behind his back, trying to look inconspicuous even though he was obviously watching Joe’s every move.  Norma seemed perfectly content to watch him reading, which was a little off-putting, but he persevered nonetheless.

She seemed to sense when he’d reached the end of the chapter, because her hand closed around his wrist to attract his attention.  He conceded defeat, closing the cover.  When Norma was satisfied that she had his full interest, she announced:

“Tomorrow, I think we should pay Mr De Mille a little visit.  I’ve waited long enough for him to call.”

Max raised an eyebrow from the other side of the room: a silent indication to Joe that he should play along.

“Norma, wouldn’t it be better to make an appointment?”

“Of course not.  Cecil B has always made time for me before; why should this be any different?”  She sat up a little straighter, jolting into action.  “Max!”

“Yes, Madame?”

“Make sure the car is immaculate.  We need to make a good impression.”

“Yes, Madame.”  There was his familiar nod, an automatic movement after so many years.  Joe often wondered if he realised he was doing it.

Norma diverted his attention back to her again, her hand upon his cheek as she drew his face level with hers.

“Oh, Joe, darling; I’m so happy.  You’ll come with me tomorrow, won’t you?”

“Of course I will,” he responded, knowing there was no alternative she would accept.  “After all, that script of yours has my mark on it now, too.  I’d hate to find out it’s fallen into the wrong hands.”

“In De Mille’s hands, it’ll be treated like gold dust; don’t you worry about that.”

She smiled reassuringly, her joy so obvious and infectious that Joe found himself smiling with her.  Norma’s hand snaked possessively behind his ear, tugging him down into a tender kiss, the lingering taste of sweet champagne and Turkish cigarettes on her lips.  The same as New Year’s Eve; the same as always.  Then she insinuated herself into his arms, pillowing her head against his shoulder.

“Thank you, Joe.  None of this would have been possible without you.”

Before he could consciously stop it, his hand sought out hers, linking their fingers together.  Over the past few months it had become a small, significant gesture that reassured Norma of his presence.

“I know, Norma.  I know.”

 —N|J—

Later that night, after Norma had gone to sleep, Joe was wandering the house in a restless fashion.  He had encountered Max only once, endured a small lecture on not straying too far in case Norma awoke in a terror, and come up with an appropriately reassuring response to get rid of him.  Once Max was satisfied and had also retired to bed, Joe was left alone with his thoughts.

Eventually, growing bored of walking aimlessly from room to room, Joe returned to his own bedroom and pulled a chair up to the window from which, it was rumoured, Catalina could be seen on a clear day.  He still wasn’t sure how true that was, but now that the weather was starting to clear up the view was definitely impressive.

The sprawling Hollywood hills lay before him, punctuated by the occasional headlight of a passing car, the city lights twinkling in the distance.  The view reminded him of when he first arrived in LA, hoping to make his fortune, and even now he felt a familiar stirring that he had thought long-buried.  There was magic out there, if you knew where to find it.

In the silence, his thoughts returned, as they often did, to his current situation.  Many a time, he had wondered if there was anything he could have done to prevent it.  His memory inevitably took him back to New Year’s Eve, the point where everything had changed.  He did not like to dwell on it, but he found he could not stop the recollection once it had started – it played out in his mind like one of Norma’s silent, flickering epics…

  

There is music, and champagne, and he’s wearing tails.  This is not how he imagined spending New Year’s Eve.

Norma has yet to make her grand entrance, having told him to be ready for 9.00pm sharp.  Max is dressed in a smart white jacket instead of his usual black, manning the drinks trolley.  Joe wheedles him for information on their imminent guests, but he insists that “Madame herself” made all the arrangements for this evening.

Max straightens his back, his gaze flitting to the stairs; Norma emerges, resplendent in a diamante gown, and descends the stairs in a regal fashion.  Joe sets down his glass and applauds, sweeping into a bow and extending a hand as she approaches.

She ignores his overblown attempt at chivalry and thrusts something into his hand with a brusque, “Happy New Year.”  After all the money she’s spent on his new wardrobe, he already feels as though she’s throwing her money away, and he tries to hand it back.

She won’t let him.  “Open it.  Read what it says.”

He’d like to say he’s surprised by the engraving inside the solid gold cigarette case, but he reads the words with a slight sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.  “Mad about the boy…”

He’s suspected for a while that she might have developed something more than mutual respect for him, but he has not found the courage yet to approach the situation in order to defuse it.  A part of him is flattered that she could feel that way about him at all – he’s a writer, nothing more – just some guy who stumbled into her house by accident.  And yet, over the past few weeks they have grown closer:  he is the only one who can drag her back from the edge of anxiety, with nothing more than a touch of his hand to hers.  Every time he has entertained the notion of leaving, he remembers that fact, and cannot quite bring himself to do it.

He snaps the cigarette case closed and slips it into his inside pocket, accepting it gracefully, then hands her a glass of champagne.

“Yes,” she responds, “and you do look absolutely divine.”

She takes the drink and examines him critically, making him all the more self-conscious.  The get-up is a perfect fit – as it would be after the amount of measurements that were taken – but it’s not really his style.

“Well, thank you.”

Norma sips her drink and then takes his hand, dragging him towards the terrazzo as she explains where it came from.  The mention of Rudy Valentino makes his head spin; he keeps forgetting, lately, who she is, who she used to be.  Then, she places both of their drinks on Max’s trolley, and encourages him to join her in a dance.

He resists, at first: he doesn’t know how to tango, and would not want to sully Valentino’s tiles with his amateur steps.  Norma will hear nothing of the sort, sweeping him into an impromptu dancing lesson.  Her technique is not exactly formal, but her enthusiasm is infectious, and with the insistent pressure from her hands – one on his shoulder and one clasped tightly in his – she manoeuvres him across the terrazzo until he slowly begins to get the hang of it.

They have a few stumbles, Joe tripping over his own feet as well as Norma’s, but she perseveres.  When she’s certain he can continue without further guidance, she tries to draw in closer, but the feathery contraption in her hair is irritating him.

“Don’t lean back like that!”

“Norma, it’s that… thing.  It tickles.”

She extracts it without further argument and crosses the terrazzo to hand it to Max, who immediately spirits it away somewhere and resumes his stoic position at the drinks trolley – half-watching the scene with a critical eye, his face unreadable.

Norma turns back, meeting Joe’s gaze with an expectant expression, and he finds himself crossing the terrazzo to meet her halfway – drawn to her despite himself.  It might be his imagination playing tricks on him, but it feels as though the music is rising in time with their slow and measured steps towards each other.

As Norma settles in his arms again, this time allowing him to lead, she tells him her plans for next year: how perfect it will be for the two of them.  He begins to suspect that nobody else is coming to the party, but he is too deep in concentration to bring it up.  The implication of her words strikes him a little too late, but he tries to reason with her nonetheless – breaking away for a moment on the pretence of reaching for a drink.

The atmosphere in the room begins to change: Joe senses it like an oncoming train and feels just as powerless to stop it.  Norma stares at him intently, watching his every move; the music crescendos in the background; he falters under her gaze and finds his logic abandoning him, his hand reaching out for hers in a silent invitation.

They take to the floor again.  The champagne has gone straight to his head and he can no longer think clearly.  As they spin in circles, the dizziness takes hold; Norma laughs happily and it sounds refreshing in the gloom of her mansion.  He starts to forget where they are, who he’s with; through the hazy cocktail of music and champagne, all he can see is that lovesick beauty from the old photograph.  His mindscape conjures up a flickering picture: a guy and a girl and a foreign terrazzo; a familiar scene with an inevitable ending…

Norma laughs again, captivated, as he dips her dramatically and their noses almost touch.  She assures him again how next year will be perfect – he can hardly deny her that.  Their closeness suddenly dawns on him and he feels a twinge of panic.  Norma looks disappointed as he stands again, but she recovers quickly and leads him back to the sofa.

He can no longer avoid raising the subject.  “So, when are they supposed to get here?”

She laughs like it’s the most ridiculous question in the world.  “Who?”

“The other guests.”

“There are no other guests,” she explains.  “Just you and me.”

Her kiss is as sweet as it is surprising; he forgets himself for a moment, that movie in his head picking up where it left off.  She pulls away again to gaze at him, and he recognises the look in her eyes as that tiny flicker she has tried so hard to suppress before.  This time she does not suppress it, and the intensity of it grips his heart like a fist.

“I’m in love with you – surely you know that.”

She doesn’t wait for a response, leaning in a second time, deepening the kiss.  The clichéd movie scene in Joe’s head continues to play for a second or two, then suddenly judders to a halt as the reality of the situation dawns on him.  He grips her shoulders lightly and gently pushes her back, hoping to convey how big a mistake it would be to embark on something he suspects neither of them are quite ready for.  He cannot find the words to express himself adequately, his mind reeling as to how they reached this point and how, if at all, he could have prevented it.

“What is it?” she asks, becoming agitated.  “What’s the matter, Joe?”

What can he tell her?  How can he save himself?  “Norma…”

“What?”

“I… what I’m trying to say is—“

“What you’re trying to say,” she interrupts him, “is that you don’t want me to love you.  Is that it?”

She’s right, of course – that would make things easier.  But it’s not what he was going to tell her. 

No – what he wanted was to try and explain that they already have a good thing going and that they shouldn’t ruin it; that he is fond of her but had never entertained the notion of it becoming any more than that; that there are more deserving people out there than a down-on-his-luck screenwriter.  None of these things will come out of his suddenly dry mouth, and his silence only infuriates her more.

“Say it!”

In her growing frustration – with him and with herself – Norma lashes out, slapping him hard across the cheek.  It shocks him more than it hurts, and he rises from the sofa and takes a step back, away from her.  Norma follows, her expression anguished, and cradles his face in her hands. Her eyes reflect a thousand apologies, mere moments before they brim with tears; she releases him and heads for the staircase to flee the scene.

She breaks down before she even reaches the third step, collapsing at the foot of the marble stairs.  A jumble of apologies and pleas for forgiveness pour out of her, barely comprehensible.

Joe cannot bear to see her crying, even now – even in his anger and confusion, the sight of her makes his heart ache to offer comfort.  In a few short strides, he crosses the room to approach her, sitting beside her on the second step of her grandiose staircase.  His presence only fuels the fire of her self-destruction; she rounds on him with a venomous glare.

“Well, why are you still here?  Go on, get out of here.  Go.  Just go!”

With this demand, her sobbing begins anew and she turns away from him.  When he makes no move to leave, his indecision paralysing him, she makes the choice for him: regaining enough composure to march determinedly towards the front door and hold it open.  He watches her every move, meeting the challenge in her gaze with a sincerity in his own; her façade crumbles, just a little, as he rises from the step and approaches both Norma and the door at a calm and steady pace.

First, he closes the door, shutting out the sound of rainfall with a satisfying click.  Then he reaches silently for her hand, and walks her back to the sofa in the living room.  She sits, her eyes never leaving his as he joins her.  In her surprise, the tears have stopped, the hysteria finally burned out.

Joe fishes a handkerchief out of his pocket, and as he uses it, once again, to dry her tear-streaked face, he knows she recognises the significance of it.  The desperate hope in her eyes is what finally undoes him.  The mistake has already been made; he can’t talk his way out of it, so all he can do is try and repair the damage.  He works silently, diligently, until the handkerchief is smudged with mascara; as he folds it neatly and returns it to his pocket, the strains of Auld Lang Syne drift across the room from the hired band.

It’s midnight.

Norma, momentarily distracted by the chiming of the clock, does not anticipate his next move, as he leans across to brush a kiss against her mouth.  She freezes, surprised, and then melts bonelessly against him; her relief and happiness are tangible, and although she tries to follow as he pulls back, somehow she senses that he has something to say.

“Happy New Year, Norma…”

She searches his face for any suggestion of insincerity, and finds none. 

“Happy New Year, darling…” 

He basks in the glow of love that radiates from her, and when she pulls him to her again, possessively and with deceptive strength, he does not resist…

 

“Joe!  Where are you?  Joe!”

Norma’s voice pierced the silence, ringing clearly through the darkened atmosphere of the house and breaking through the haze of Joe’s remembrance.

It took him a second or two to realise that his mind had returned a false memory of that night.  Things had taken a very different turn to that, yet for some reason his reminiscence had skipped the part where he ran out on Norma, and indeed her own actions in response.  It wasn’t as though he’d never considered how things might have gone, in a different place or time, but never before had the events changed so drastically in his memory.  Thinking about it now, as the residual images faded, it felt almost real.

Norma shouted for him again.  A glance at his alarm clock indicated it was just gone two o’clock – right on schedule.

Shaking himself back to reality, Joe trod carefully towards the adjoining doors between his room and Norma’s, opening them quietly.  More often than not, she would be calling out in her sleep, and he would only need to stay for a few minutes until the nightmare passed.  Tonight, it seemed, that was not the case.  In the dim, dusky pink of the lamplight, Norma was sat up in bed with a wide-eyed, terrified stare, which dissipated only a little when he emerged through the doorway.

“Joe?  Is that you?”

“Yes, I’m here.”  He moved further into the room so she could see him properly, then settled on the edge of the bed.  He disentangled one of her hands from where it was gripping the covers and held it in his, watching as another layer of calm descended around Norma’s demeanour.  “What was it this time?”

She looked thoughtful for a moment, but the images which had plagued her seemed to have vanished, and she shook her head.

“I can’t remember now.”

“Well, whatever it was… it was just a dream, Norma.  You’re perfectly safe.”

“Yes.  Thank you, Joe.”

He gave her hand a comforting squeeze and made to leave, but she would not relinquish her grip on his fingers.  He stopped in his tracks and turned, giving her a questioning look.

“Please don’t go.  I’m still frightened.”

“Norma, I’m only in the next room—“

Please, Joe.  Stay with me.  Just until I fall asleep.”

He sighed, but acquiesced with a nod.  Her expression brightened in gratitude, as he pulled aside the layers of sheets and comforters and slid in beside her; he knew the chair was not an option tonight.  Norma switched off the lamp, bathing the room in moonlight, then snuggled up to him, pillowing her head against his chest and wrapping an arm around his waist.  He rested his arm loosely around her shoulders and tried to get comfortable.

Before too long, Norma drifted off again.  She always slept better when Joe was with her, and he wondered how long it would be before this became an inevitably permanent arrangement.

Joe’s thoughts immediately returned to their previous pattern, as his mistaken recollection came back to haunt him: dancing with Norma, losing himself in a strange illusion, repairing the damage he had never intended to cause before it could escalate.  It made no sense at all.  He couldn’t alter what had happened… and yet a part of him yearned to go back, re-edit the scene and change the ending.

He risked a glimpse at Norma, sleeping peacefully and still wrapped possessively around him.  A beam of white-blue moonlight arced across the bed, illuminating her features.  She looked so much younger than her years, unburdened by the panic and uncertainty which filled the majority of her days.  That familiar affection flared up in his chest, the overwhelming need to protect her from those demons which seemed to follow her around. 

He pressed a kiss to her forehead, fully expecting to disturb her.  She didn’t stir, other than a barely perceptible tightening of her grip around his torso.

Ordinarily, he would attempt to extricate himself from the bed and return to his own, but Norma had given him very little room to manoeuvre and he could not find any way of doing so without fully waking her up.  As he listened to her even breathing in the darkness, he felt himself start to succumb to unconsciousness, and conceded defeat.  Nevertheless, he could not avoid the thought which crossed his mind mere seconds before sleep dragged him under.

Christ; there was no way this could end well.

—N|J—

Joe overslept the next morning.  He had a vague, half-conscious recollection of his alarm clock ringing until the action wound itself down, but it had sounded somewhat distant and he was too tired to shut it off.  He had no idea what time it was; there was morning daylight streaming into the room, bright and piercing.

It was that which had woken him up, along with the sensation of a hand combing gently through his hair.  He resurfaced slowly, somewhat reluctantly, and found himself face-to-face with Norma, propped on one elbow and gazing at him with unconcealed affection.  She smiled at him beatifically, almost glowing from a halo of sunlight behind her.

It took him a couple of seconds to remember where he was, and why, though his question over the time of day was conveniently answered by the distant chiming coming from the hallway, informing him it was ten o’clock.  There was probably breakfast waiting downstairs; Norma was usually very strict about the most important meal of the day and he was surprised she hadn’t woken him sooner.

“Good morning,” he said, for a want of anything more appropriate.

“Yes, it is,” she responded, somewhat cryptically.  Despite the evidence in front of her, there was an edge of hopeful curiosity to her tone when she asked: “You… you stayed the whole night?” 

“Well, I… I didn’t want to disturb you,” he explained, his mind’s eye conjuring up the image of her sleeping peacefully in the moonlight.  “You were…”  He stopped himself before he could finish that thought, a little afraid of what might come out.

Norma would not let him get away with it so easily.  “I was what, Joe?”

“I don’t know, Norma.  It doesn’t matter.”

She took pity on him in his recently-woken state, and did not push him any further to explain.  Nonetheless, he was worried he’d let his guard down too much already, caught unawares by the situation.  Norma was exceptionally good at reading him, which he supposed was an inevitable side effect of so many years making silent pictures and communicating without words.  For his own part, he was more than aware that, more often than not, he wore his heart on his sleeve – particularly when it came to dealing with her occasional bouts of melancholy.

Norma suddenly shifted, cuddling closer.  “I slept wonderfully.”

“Good.”

Norma’s hand trailed lazily across his stomach, presumably to squeeze him in gratitude, but she did not quite manage it – Joe jerked away from her touch with a sudden yelp and she retreated, stunned, the first hint of a challenge flickering in her eyes as she sat up.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing.  Sorry.”

She’d already worked it out, however; the fire in her gaze simmered down and was replaced by a mischievous twinkle.  “Are… are you ticklish?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course I’m n—”

His denial fell on deaf ears: Norma suddenly launched a full-scale attack to his ribcage, as he tried not to succumb to laughter, and failed.  He attempted to retaliate in kind, only to be thwarted by the discovery that, infuriatingly, she did not share the same affliction.  Trying to fend her off only provided her with more access.

Norma’s joyful laughter at this latest piece of knowledge was a rare and unfamiliar sound, so different from the hysterical panic and desolate sobbing Joe had become so used to.  He was becoming exhausted from her relentless onslaught of tickling, finding it difficult to catch a breath, but nonetheless Joe felt something loosen in his chest at the sound of it.  Norma’s happiness made her glow with a youthful exuberance he had rarely seen before.

He tried to protest again but found it impossible to get a word in edgeways; every time he tried, she changed direction and provoked another fit of laughter.  Eventually, the only solution he could come up with was to gently overpower her and pin her to the mattress, gripping both of her wrists in one hand whilst he supported his own weight with the other.  Thankfully it seemed to work; when he let go of her again, she was not tempted to repeat the performance.  Her laughter slowly dwindled whilst Joe recovered, her eyes darkening as the childish playfulness suddenly distilled into something more serious.

Norma raised a hand to caress his cheek, sighing contentedly.

“I love you, Joe.”

He wanted to reassure her, to respond with the words she so desperately wanted to hear, but he was not in the habit of saying something so important if he did not mean it – and surely it was worse to lie to her.  He could no longer deny that he felt something for Norma, but he could not call it love.  What had started as curiosity had turned to friendship; sympathy had turned to protectiveness; fondness to affection.  There were moments when she caught him so intensely in her thrall that he forgot how to breathe, but no – it was not love.

A little voice in his head replied: Not yet.  He silenced it firmly.

He couldn’t give her what she wanted, but she would accept whatever he was willing to provide.

Joe turned his head, pressing a kiss to her palm, and then to the thin, white scar on her wrist.  Tears glittered in her eyes as she pulled him close, her kiss deep and consuming, stealing his breath a second time.

As they parted, Joe suddenly remembered Norma’s announcement the previous evening.  She tried to tug him down again but he gently resisted.

“Norma…”

“Yes?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what day it is.”  She looked puzzled, so he clarified: “You have a date with Cecil B. De Mille…”

The realisation dawned on her face; she wriggled out from underneath him and started scurrying about the room in a bout of frenetic activity.  She chastised him for not reminding her sooner, lamenting the lack of time she had to prepare.  Then she shooed him back towards his own room, ordering him to make himself presentable, and disappeared in the direction of the bathroom.

Joe allowed himself a smile at Norma’s enthusiasm, but it faltered when he considered how the imminent meeting with De Mille might go.  There was every possibility the carefully-constructed façade he and Max were maintaining might be demolished by a misplaced word from Norma’s old colleague, and there was no telling how she might react.

If the inevitable happened, Joe would have to be there to pick up the pieces.  He had no other choice.

—N|J—

Half an hour or so later, Joe had made himself as presentable as he was going to be, though he doubted Norma would agree.  On finally emerging downstairs, he found breakfast laid out in the living room as anticipated: some toast which had gone long-cold, an array of fruit, a pitcher of orange juice and a pot of coffee which was, by that point, only just lukewarm.  Max was nowhere to be found, which he was glad about, as he certainly was not looking forward to explaining away the laughter which must have been clearly emanating from Norma's room.

Max, it transpired, was making some final preparations to the Isotta-Fraschini, buffing the exterior to a high shine and brushing the final remnants of dust from the upholstery.  Joe heard the distant sound of the motor juddering to life, as Max manoeuvred the vehicle out of the garage and onto the driveway, left the engine idling for a moment and then turned it off again.  He returned to the house, carrying a stiff brush and a chamois leather duster, just as Joe was helping himself to some of the toast, and regarded him with a slightly sceptical expression.

“I can make a fresh batch, if you would prefer, Sir,” he said.

Joe poured himself a cup of coffee and took an experimental sip, wincing slightly.  “No, that's okay.  Thanks.  This'll be fine.”

“Will Madame be joining us?”

“I should hope so; this is her big day.”

With that, he settled on the sofa with the morning's newspaper, as Max wandered in the direction of the kitchen to get rid of the car-cleaning implements.  There was nothing particularly noteworthy in the news: just a perfectly ordinary day.  For Norma, however, this was not an ordinary day; this was her first big public appearance in who-knew-how-many years.  Joe actually felt nervous on her behalf.  The flurry of morning preparations must have distracted her, at least for a while, from the enormity of what was about to happen, but he wondered now if her reluctance to emerge was down to sudden stage fright.

He opted to give her another thirty minutes before going to find her.

Max had been hovering somewhat aimlessly in the living room, occasionally glancing towards the staircase or even at Joe himself, but he did not speak.  Joe gave up on the newspaper and got up to pour himself an orange juice, at which point Max took the opportunity to ask the question he had clearly been sitting on for the past half-hour.

“If you don't mind my asking, Mr Gillis, what—“

He did not get to finish the question – Joe was relieved, as he had a pretty good idea Max had been about to ask about the giggling – because at that point his attention was diverted to the staircase, where Norma had finally emerged.  Joe followed the line of Max's gaze, watching as she descended in her usual, regal fashion – and found he could not look away.

She was impeccably dressed, as usual: a subtle black two-piece embellished with white fur, her hair done up in an elaborate arrangement secured by pearl-accented pins, the whole thing set off by a glittering set of jewellery which comprised more diamonds than he'd ever seen in his life, and a make-up job that must have taken most of the past hour by itself.  The glass of orange juice sat forgotten in his hand, the sight of Norma stunning him stupid.  She'd certainly pulled all the stops out to impress De Mille.

The effort felt worthy of applause, but the glass in his hand effectively put a stop to that.  Instead, all he could do was stare, open-mouthed, as Norma made her slow descent, regarding Joe's stupor with a certain curiosity.

“Joe – whatever’s the matter?”

He snapped his mouth shut self-consciously, downed the contents of the glass in one swig to cure his suddenly parched throat, and finally put it down on the drinks trolley.

“Nothing, I just…”  He hesitated, weighing up his options, before going with his first instinct.  “You look beautiful, Norma.  You’ll knock ‘em dead today.”

Her cheeks darkened at the unexpected compliment.

“Thank you, darling.”

She approached, pressing a kiss to his cheek and then wiping away the smudge of lipstick left in its wake.  In her heels, she was almost his height.  It occurred to him that she was once again playing the role of Norma Desmond, the great movie star, collected and confident; the Norma he knew was a small, fragile, but occasionally fiery being.  It was fascinating to behold, the way she could switch so easily between the two.

Norma’s focus was elsewhere now.

“Max, is the car ready?”

“Yes, Madame.”

“Well, come on.  Let’s not waste any more time.”

If she was nervous, it was well-hidden beneath her fashionable armour and outwardly self-assured demeanour.  As she went through a few final preparations in her head – what to say to De Mille, how best to sell the script and, indeed, herself – Joe raised a hand to his cheek, wondering why the spot where she’d kissed him still tingled.  He had no idea where the compliment had come from, although it was certainly true: she looked stunning and probably knew it.  Her appearance this morning was a reminder to Joe of just how breathtaking she could be.  He’d seen the vulnerable, self-conscious side of her so often that he’d forgotten there was anything else.

Max went out to start the car, as Norma hovered expectantly near the door, waiting for Joe.  He indicated for her to go ahead, closed the door behind them, and offered her an arm, escorting her all the way to the driveway.  He assisted her into the car before climbing into the back seat beside her.

As soon as the car pulled out onto the road, Joe sensed Norma’s cool and collected front begin to falter.  That was to be expected: the outside world was probably a scary place after all this time.  He reached out instinctively for one of her gloved hands, squeezing reassuringly, and the effect was immediate: the mask settled back in place. 

—N|J—

Their arrival at the Paramount gates had proved to be an interesting experience.  If not for “Jonesy” pulling strings for Norma, they might not have gotten inside at all, and all of her hard work would have been wasted.  Of course, that was still a distinct possibility even after they’d gained access to the lot.  Joe hoped fervently that De Mille would have the heart and the conviction to let Norma down gently, and that she might accept the truth from her former director where Joe himself had failed.

Max pulled up outside Stage 18 – a featureless concrete box just like all the others, though its interior housed all of the trappings of cinematic illusion.  Joe got out first, opening the passenger door for Norma and offering her a hand out.  She appeared pleased by his attempt at chivalry and accepted it without question.

Norma regarded the unimposing door to the soundstage with trepidation.

“Won’t you come along, Joe?”

He shook his head.  “No.  It’s your script.  It’s your show.  Good luck.”

She nodded determinedly and opened her arms.  He acquiesced, stepping forward into her embrace.

“Thank you, my darling.”

She held tight for a few seconds, taking strength from the contact, then pulled out of his arms again.  She reached for his face with both hands, examining him for a moment before leaning in for a kiss.  As she pulled away, he saw the depth of gratitude reflected in her eyes, and almost felt unworthy.

The soundstage door opened and De Mille emerged, flanked by various backstage workers.  He greeted Norma fondly as she approached, ushering her inside, and they both disappeared behind the door.  Joe was admittedly curious to see what went into making a great De Mille epic, but this was Norma’s moment and he did not want to intrude.

In the daylight, Joe took in his surroundings.  The lot was familiar, of course, but it felt like years since his unproductive meeting with Sheldrake.  Time had almost ceased to exist within the walls of 10086, Sunset Boulevard, and he had to think for a moment to recall just how long he’d been there.  Was it four months?  Five?  Certainly long enough that he’d already forgotten the unpleasant smell of his old apartment.

Casting his eyes around, his gaze alighted on a sign: Readers Department.  It jogged a memory from somewhere and it took him a second or two to place it.  Then it came back to him: Betty Schaefer, that eager young wannabe screenwriter he’d given the story to.  Well, he had some time to kill: might as well pay her a little visit and see how it was going.

The office was located up a set of stairs, a few metres from where Max had parked the car.  Max was preoccupied waiting for Norma, watching the soundstage like a hawk; Joe made an excuse about going for a stroll and headed for the stairs.

Betty was typing away at something, deep in concentration.  Her office was light and airy, the harsh sunlight blocked by a Venetian blind at the window which was half-drawn, casting horizontal shadows across the entire room.  She was dressed in a smart salmon-pink sweater and a tan skirt, with what remained of her lunch beside her on the desk in the form of a shiny green apple.  Joe had to pause a moment to take in the scene; everything in his life was black-and-white these days, from Norma’s home movies to almost everything she wore.  There was colour in the mansion’s décor, but it was muted, faded after so many years.

Joe knocked on the door.  Betty frowned at the sudden interruption, but recognition dawned on her face as he stuck his head through the gap.

“Well, if it isn’t Mr Gillis!  Come in, pull up a chair.”

“Oh, I can’t stay long.  Just thought I’d see how that story was going.”  He remained by the door, hands in his pockets.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve been having a little trouble with it.  Sheldrake wants me to produce a script, but he didn’t give me any kind of a deadline and I’ve been so busy…”  She trailed off, suddenly embarrassed.  “I’m sorry, Mr Gillis.  You’re the first person I’ve spoken to in about three hours.  It gets kind of lonely up here.  Sometimes I even talk to myself.”

“Is that a fact?”

He smirked at her and she seemed to realise what she’d said, adopting a mortified expression which only amused him even more.

“Oh, dear.  Please ignore everything I just said.” 

“Okay, I will.  Now, what seems to be the trouble?”

Adopting a more determined pose, Betty reached into her desk drawer and pulled out what she’d written so far, tapping at the pages with the tip of a pencil.

“I’ve got the outline here, and a couple of scenes which I’m pretty happy with.  To be honest, I didn’t want to write too much of it.”  She jabbed the pencil in his general direction with a frown.  “You promised to call me, Mr G—“

“There’s no need for formalities, Miss Schaefer,” he interjected.  “Just ‘Joe’ is fine.”

“You promised to call me, Joe.  We were supposed to work on this together.”

He shrugged nonchalantly.  “I had a crisis.  Something came up.”

“Excuses, excuses.”

In fact, he’d forgotten all about Betty Schaefer and the script they were supposed to be collaborating on, a decision he’d made in the heat of the moment on New Year’s Eve when escaping Norma was the only thing on his mind.  Events since then had taken over every aspect of his life.  He certainly had not expected to run into Betty again.  Her enthusiasm was contagious, however, and he felt guilty for not contacting her, so he approached the desk and reached for the manuscript.

“Let’s take a look…” 

What she’d written was good, he noticed; the outline was solid and the two scenes were well-crafted.  She just needed a little push to boost her confidence.

“Betty, this is really good.”

“It is?”  She seemed genuinely surprised.

“I don’t think you need me after all.”  He handed the script back to her.

“Oh, but...”

“I really have to go.”  He turned to leave, making it halfway to the door before she called after him.

“Wait!  Please, just one more thing…”  She paused, waiting until Joe gave a nod.  “I’m not convinced about the ending.  It needs something else, but I just don’t know what.”

Joe skimmed the relevant part of the outline again and gave it some thought.  Something popped into his head, and before he knew what was happening, he was throwing ideas around and Betty was scribbling them down, nodding enthusiastically.

He told himself it was just a little healthy encouragement, but in truth he found it exhilarating.  Working on Salome had been an exhausting endeavour – it had been so long ago since the editing was finished that he’d practically forgotten, or else had been so distracted by latter events that it seemed unimportant – and it was refreshing to come up with something of his own again.  Something new and exciting.  And Betty was on his wavelength, eagerly noting everything down and occasionally interjecting with an opinion or another idea. 

He became aware of raised voices downstairs, one of them sounding distinctly like Max.  He remembered Norma, down in the soundstage with De Mille.  Presumably she hadn’t re-emerged yet, but it would not do for him to be absent when she eventually did.  Joe made his excuses and tried to leave, but Betty remained insistent they should work on the script together.  She was more persuasive than he had given her credit for, and he found himself agreeing to meet up again – the threat of a half-eaten apple aimed at his head was enough to convince him.  He would work out how to approach Norma about it later.

On his return downstairs he caught the tail-end of whatever altercation had taken place.  Max was staring gruffly in the direction of two burly-looking men carrying props, who were beating a hasty retreat.

After a moment’s deliberation, Max explained that the phone-calls Norma had been receiving were nothing to do with Salome – rather, someone had espied the Isotta-Fraschini when Max had delivered the script to Paramount, and wanted to hire it for a picture.  It was apparent that he had dealt with the situation, but nonetheless Joe felt a surge of frustrated anger and almost wanted to give the men a piece of his mind.

Despite Max’s distrust of Joe, at that point they both came to the same silent conclusion: Norma should be protected from this information at all costs.

The door to Stage 18 creaked open, and De Mille escorted Norma out into the sunlight again.  Joe could not quite make out their conversation, but Norma appeared outwardly happy as she embraced De Mille warmly and they shared a familiar laugh.  De Mille watched from the doorway as Norma returned to the car and Joe assisted her back inside.

As soon as he settled in beside her, she reached for his arm excitedly.

“Well, how did it go?”  He was almost afraid to ask.

“The picture’s as good as made,” she enthused.  “Of course, he needs to finish his current project first, but he says mine will be next.”

“That’s… that’s great news, Norma.  I’m happy for you.”

Norma cuddled up against him, resting her head against his shoulder, as Max slowly manoeuvred the car out of the lot.  Joe craned his neck to look back towards Stage 18, where De Mille was still watching from the doorway with a troubled expression, only disappearing back inside once the car had cleared the area.

The damned coward.

—N|J—

Joe had spent much of the return journey silently fuming to himself over De Mille’s inability to be truthful with Norma, and – if he was brutally honest – over his own cowardice in that regard.  Things should never have gotten this far: Norma should not still have been under the misguided illusion that her picture would get made.  Maybe Joe should have been firmer with her when he’d had the chance, before there was her fragile heart to consider.

In his frustration, he almost forgot about his brief encounter with Betty Schaefer and his promise to work on the script with her.  He made a mental note to try and approach Norma about his potential collaboration at some later point. After all, Betty was engaged to Artie: surely Norma would not feel threatened if he explained that.

She was happily recounting her experience inside Stage 18.  Joe was only half-listening at first, but he managed to drag his attention back as she explained about someone called “Hog-Eye”, a gentleman up in the lighting rig who had recognised her and pointed a spotlight in her direction.  He imagined she must have made a striking vision, illuminated in all of her monochromatic splendour with all of her people crowding around.  He was glad that she’d made at least a little impact, after all the effort she’d put in, even if that impact was not on De Mille.

Finally, Max pulled the car into the driveway.  Joe had never thought he would be pleased to return to that gloomy old mansion, but for better or worse, it had been his home for the past few months, and he could not deny a sense of relief as the car came to a halt.  He’d spent the past few hours worrying about Norma, other than the ten minutes in Betty’s office, and it was exhausting.  He needed a stiff drink, and to lose himself in a book for a few hours.

Assisting Norma from the car had become a feature of the day, and he saw no reason not to continue the theme now they were home.  She allowed herself a laugh this time, still in high spirits from her meeting at Paramount.  They ambled towards the house, Norma’s arm resting in the crook of his elbow, as Max trundled the car back to the garage.

Once they were safely inside, Norma seemed to deflate: she stumbled on the threshold, gripping tighter to Joe’s arm, and he reached out to steady her as she pressed a hand to her forehead.

“Whoa, there.  You okay?”

She gave a nod.  “Yes.  Just a little tired.  All this excitement has worn me out.”

“Come on, you should probably sit down.”  He started to lead her towards the sofa, but she resisted.

“No, I… I think I’ll take a nap.  Just a couple of hours and then I’ll be right as rain.”

He walked her towards the stairs instead; she recovered some composure along the way, loosening her grip on his arm.

“I’ll be fine now.  Thank you.”

“Do you want me or Max to wake you?”

“No, I’ll be all right.”  She shook her head, then regarded him for a second or two with a thoughtful expression.  “Joe, you… you do realise how important today was to me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“I’m so grateful for everything.  For Salome; for you being there with me… for you, Joe.  I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but I’d do it a thousand times over.”

He had no idea what to say in response to that, floored by the depth of her feelings for him.  How could he ever live up to her expectations?  It seemed an impossible task, and one which he felt woefully unprepared for.  He found himself remembering the events of that morning: Norma, carefree and happy in the morning sunlight, brimming with unfathomable love, silently beseeching him to feel the same; himself, unable to grant her that one wish unless – until? – it was actually true.  His traitorous heart defied him at every turn, just as it did now when her eyes betrayed her vulnerability as clear as day.

Caving beneath her scrutiny, he could do nothing except pull her into his arms, wrapping her in a tight hug which she all-too-readily reciprocated.  Joe squeezed his eyes shut against a sudden onslaught of emotion, swallowing the lump in his throat.  Norma did not deserve this; he’d tried to tell her that from the start.  She needed more than a stray puppy who’d wandered in off the street and discovered that meals were better than scraps: more than an impoverished screenwriter with no backbone and even fewer convictions, except for the one which prevented him from lying to her even when it was exactly what she wanted to hear.

With a great effort, Joe managed to regain control of himself.  Norma’s arms loosened of their own accord and she began to pull away.  He did not quite trust his face not to betray him, so he prolonged the moment by pressing a kiss to her forehead.  Thankfully, it was enough to calm the tempest in his head, at least for the moment.

“It’s been a crazy day,” he said.  “Go and rest.”

She nodded obediently and headed towards the stairs.  Halfway up, she was suddenly caught in a beam of light as it cascaded through the elaborate stained-glass window set into the wall, illuminating her in a kaleidoscope of colour.  Joe’s breath hitched again.

“Norma?”  She paused in her ascent, half-turning to look down at him with a questioning expression.  “I… I meant what I said before we left.  You really do look beautiful.”

She looked mildly surprised, almost as though she’d forgotten about all the effort she’d gone to that morning, before melting into a grateful smile.  She climbed the rest of the steps with her head held slightly higher, eventually disappearing behind the closed door of her room, and Joe suddenly, miraculously felt a degree of sanity begin to return.

He had not noticed Max behind him in the doorway, watching the exchange with a sombre expression.  When he turned towards the living room, he practically jumped out of his skin at the sight of the formidable butler.

“Christ, Max, you nearly gave me a heart attack.  You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”

“Forgive me, Mr Gillis.  I did not want to impose.”  He watched as Joe headed for the drinks trolley and poured himself a drink.  There was little point in offering to mix something for him, as Joe downed the contents of the glass in one gulp, grimaced, and then poured another.  “Is anything amiss, Sir?”

“Amiss?  I don’t think so.  Why do you ask?”  He took a smaller swig this time and swirled the glass thoughtfully, more than aware of why Max might think there was something wrong.  He wasn’t sure how much of the exchange on the stairs Max had seen; more than enough, it seemed, to have troubled him.

“Is Madame quite well?”

“Yes, she’s fine.  Just a little tired, but that’s to be expected.”

There was clearly something Max wanted to say, but deep-rooted propriety was preventing him from voicing it.  Joe was in no mood to fish it out of him.  For several seconds they merely regarded each other with differing levels of suspicion, Joe idly sipping his drink until he’d emptied the glass.

Eventually, the simmering cauldron of Max’s frustration bubbled over, and his expression darkened threateningly.  Joe replaced the glass on the trolley, taking a step back, before changing his mind and standing his ground, his hands jammed into his pockets with characteristic bluster.

Max considered his words carefully.  “Mr Gillis, I would warn you: do not lead her on unless you have any intention of playing this part indefinitely.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Her heart is fragile and easily broken.  If you have any doubts whatsoever, I must advise you to tread carefully.  There are ways and means, if you wish to regain your freedom – I would not hold it against you.  But please – do not play this game if you believe there is any chance of winning.”

Joe was taken aback by Max’s uncharacteristic display.  Yes, he had always displayed a level of territorial protectiveness over Norma, but this was something new entirely.  Joe’s first instinct was to argue, to deny the thinly-veiled accusation which had been thrown at him, but with a sinking sensation, he realised Max was right.  Joe was well aware of Norma’s fragility, and had been for some time, but after her meeting with De Mille he’d made the decision to support her through whatever might happen next.  If he could just get her through that, she might come out stronger on the other side – strong enough to function without him.

“Max, believe me – I’m more than aware of Norma’s weaknesses.  No matter what you may think of me, I’m not so cold-hearted as to ignore them.”

Max had run out of steam, for now; his next words were spoken with a more resigned tone.  “You cannot lie to her forever.”

“Who says I’ve been lying at all?”

One of Max’s eyebrows raised sceptically.  “Sir?”

“I haven’t lied to Norma.  Not once in all the months I’ve been here.  It isn’t me who writes her pages of fanmail.  Just like it wasn’t me who convinced her that script would get shot.”

The older man looked chastised and guilty at Joe’s implication; yes, he and Cecil B. De Mille were just as culpable in feeding Norma’s delusions, and all three of them were equally caught in her web.  At least Joe had the benefit of foresight and enough of his wits to try and mould the situation into something manageable.  Maybe he’d even save Norma from herself along the way.

“I have no intention of hurting her again,” he continued.  “I learned that lesson on New Year’s Eve.  You probably won’t believe me when I tell you this, but… I do care for Norma, in my own way.”

“I do believe you, Mr Gillis.  You have proven that much.”

“To you, or to her?”

“I do not doubt that you care for her,” he confirmed, “but Madame will need more than that, eventually.”  Max paused a moment, imbuing his next words with a gravitas that seemed designed purely to exacerbate the guilt Joe already carried around.  “She loves you.  It is a precious gift, one not to be taken lightly.”

Joe gave up any pretence of treading carefully, allowing his frustration to take hold.

“I know that, Max – and I wish I deserved it.  I really do.”  He gestured towards the stairs for a moment before returning his hand to his pocket.  “She’s worth so much more than some nobody who stumbled into her driveway.  If I could go back and change it, I would... but I can’t.  So I’ll play the part as long as necessary.”

Max fell into silence again.  A tumult of thoughts seemed to cross his features as he considered what Joe had said, but none of them were verbalised.  Eventually, however, he seemed to concede that Joe was being truthful.  He straightened his back, snapping back into the mode they were both accustomed to, almost as though the conversation had never taken place.

“Will you be wanting dinner now, Sir?  Or shall I wait until Madame comes down?”

Joe floundered, reeling from Max’s sudden change of demeanour.  It was difficult enough keeping track of Norma, without Max adding to things. 

“I’ll wait,” he decided eventually.

“Very good, Mr Gillis.” 

With a half-bow, Max turned to leave.  Joe watched his retreating back until he disappeared through a doorway, momentarily stunned into immobility by what had just transpired.  With Max gone, Joe’s bravado at his own ability to rectify the situation wore off, leaving him with the sinking realisation that he was already in over his head and had been for some time. 

His plan to support Norma through the inevitable disappointment of Salome was a sound one, in theory, but it would be a near-impossible task.  Since New Year’s Eve he’d been extra careful about where he stored his razor, checking daily to make sure the drawer remained locked and the key hidden in the bottom of his old suitcase.  There was every likelihood he would need to barricade Norma – and quite possibly himself – in a safe place where she couldn’t cause any damage.  And after that… who knew?

There had been a light at the end of the tunnel, for all of five minutes.  Now he felt the familiar pull of the quicksand as it closed over his head.

To be continued…

Chapter Text

PART THREE

 

April, 1950

Blind Windows was proving to be an interesting project.  It had slowly but surely evolved from the original concept until it bore very little resemblance to the story Betty had liked so much, but there were a lot of good ideas coming through.  Joe hated to admit it, but he was starting to enjoy himself; he had never considered writing with a partner before, believing that writing was a solitary and lonely effort, but Betty’s enthusiasm was too infectious to ignore.

They smoked and drank coffee and threw ideas around, alternating places at the typewriter; Joe went over earlier drafts with a blue pencil, perpetually surprised when his suggestions were met with agreement rather than stubbornness.  Salome had clearly affected him more profoundly than he wanted to admit.  It was a relief to be able to write dialogue again.

Betty got up from the typewriter to refill the coffee-pot from a water cooler just outside the door, so Joe took her place at the desk.  He kept one eye on the clock - it was eleven-thirty and he would need to make his way home soon.  Betty was chattering about something as she put the water on to boil, but he wasn’t really paying attention, reading through the progress they’d made so far.  Another two scenes were done, with a third close to being wrapped up.  He wanted to get to the end of that tonight, if possible.

“Who’s Norma?”

Betty’s question pierced his bubble of concentration; he looked up to find her staring at the engraving inside his cigarette case.  He wasn’t quite sure if he’d heard her right.

“Who’s who?”

“Sorry,” she explained.  “I don’t usually read private cigarette cases.”

When she put it like that, of course it sounded ridiculous; he became aware that he was looking at her askance, as though she had indeed opened up some kind of personal diary.  He had not expected Betty to just help herself to his cigarettes; maybe he shouldn’t have left the case lying around; maybe he shouldn’t even have brought it out here, into the real world.  But she’d read it now, so he had to give her an explanation.

“Norma’s a friend of mine,” he suggested.  “A middle-aged lady: very foolish, very generous.”  And if she could hear you now, Joe, you’d be out on your ear. 

“I’ll say.  This is solid gold.”  She examined the inscription again.  “Mad about the boy?”

He had to change the subject before she got suspicious.  Rising from the chair, he took the cigarette case from her and snapped it shut, then returned to the desk and placed the offending article beside him, underneath his lighter.

“So, how’s Artie these days?”

Betty knew when to leave well enough alone.  “He’s stuck in Tennessee.  It rains all the time – they’re weeks behind schedule.  No-one knows when they’ll be back.”

“Good,” he said absently.  He had not fully heard her response, preoccupied with how he might begin to explain Norma to Betty, should the need arise.  He span the lighter absently, waiting for it to settle, wondering if he should take its final direction as some kind of sign.  It landed not-quite-parallel with the cigarette case, and he did not know what to make of the result.

“What’s good about it?” Betty asked incredulously, the rising pitch of her voice snapping him out of his thoughts again.  “I miss him something terrible.”

He gesticulated to the page sticking out of the typewriter.  “No, I mean this idea we have.  It’s really pretty good.”

If Betty was remotely suspicious, she did not indicate it, as Joe changed the subject again and gave the script a final push for the evening.  She fell back into step with him as they threw some ideas back and forth, the awkward conversation practically forgotten in the excitement of honing their plot.  They didn’t manage to finish the scene they’d been working on, but Betty had a good idea of where it was going, and as they parted ways she promised to look at it and have it ready for next time.

Unfortunately, he could not predict when that next time would be: he had still not managed to explain to Norma about his script-writing endeavours.  The window of opportunity had been lost.  There had been a period of two days following the trip to Paramount where she managed to sustain her positive mood, believing whole-heartedly that Salome was getting shot.  Then the doubts set in: De Mille was only being kind; the script needed re-drafting; she was not ready for her great return just yet.  In all of the reassurances that were needed, he had not found the time, or indeed the inclination, to break the news to her.  Instead, he started sneaking out like a rebellious teenager, during the quiet period between Norma going to bed and inevitably waking up again, telling himself each and every time that the next day he would manage to approach her about it.

The success of his trips to Paramount to work with Betty, however, was an exhilarating feeling; the rush of excitement and relief every time he managed to sneak back into the house unnoticed was incomparable.  He would be wracked with guilt the following morning, half-hoping for Norma to have noticed and to ask him where he was going.  She never did, and a few days later he would do it again, buoyed by false courage and a need to finish the script at any cost.

He was well aware of what a hypocrite he was, after his accusation towards Max.  Yes, he was lying to Norma now, too: another layer of subterfuge to protect her from the harsh realities around her.

—N|J—

Joe caught a taxi back to the house, instructing the driver to pull up on the street rather than entering the driveway, so the engine noise did not alert anyone’s attention.  As he made his way quietly towards the house, he kept his wits about him, vigilant to any movement within the house or the garden.  The coast was clear as he approached the door, closing it behind him as silently as possible.

He turned around to face the stairs and make his way to his room, only to be practically bowled over by a hysterical Norma as she came running from the direction of the living room and pitched herself against him.  He recovered, raising an arm to rub her back in comfort, as she clung to the front of his jacket and tried valiantly to regain control of her emotions.

“Where were you, Joe?” she eventually managed to say.  “What were you doing outside?”

“I needed some fresh air,” he explained.  “I went for a stroll.  I didn’t think I was gone that long, but I must have lost track of time.”

“I called out and you weren’t there,” she continued without acknowledging his words.  “I couldn’t find you.  I had this terrible nightmare – there was nobody in the house, not you, not Max, I was completely on my own, everywhere was dark and there was a storm outside and I was so scared—“

Joe grasped her by the shoulders and eased her away from him, distracting her before she could work herself into a panic, and she lifted her face to look at him.  Some of the fear left her expression as she regarded him, slowly coming to realise he was actually there with her.

“It was just a dream, Norma.  You’re not alone. I was right outside, and Max… well, Max would sleep through a freight train driving past his window, but he hasn’t gone anywhere.”

“You… you just went for a walk?”

“Yes.  There’s a great view – maybe you should join me next time.”

For a moment, he almost thought she was considering his offer, from her ponderous expression.  Then a mask of sheer relief descended over her features and she covered her face with her hands, another wave of emotion washing over her.  She was clearly trying to control it but not quite succeeding, as silent sobs wracked her body; she looked very small and vulnerable, and Joe could not fight his instinctive need to look after her. 

He reached out, pulling her effortlessly into his arms; she leant against him unquestioningly, uncovering her face only so she could hold him closer, resting her head against his chest.  He said nothing, waiting for Norma to calm at her own pace.  As he looked down at her, the play of light and shadow caught her at just the right angle that for a moment, she was indistinguishable from the old photograph in his memory.  His heart skipped a beat, quite unexpectedly, and Norma froze; it was obvious she’d felt it, too.

He tried to curb the panic as to how he might explain it.  She could draw whatever inferences she wanted, but he could not even begin to describe his own confused visions; that would only hurt her more.  Whatever Norma chose to believe, he would not correct her.

He lifted her chin until she raised her head to look at him, a thousand questions in her eyes, and before she could verbalise any of them he leaned down, pressing his lips to hers.  Norma pulled back after a second or two, her gaze searching his, then kissed him again with more fervour, pushing him backwards until he collided with the door. 

She tried to get closer and failed, her frustration tangible, hands wandering in an attempt to make contact with his skin.  He managed to break through her haze just long enough to say, “Not here…”, then allowed her to lead him up the stairs.

—N|J—

“Happy New Year, darling…”

She pulls him down into her embrace with surprising strength considering her weakened state, and as her lips find his the only predominant emotion he can feel is relief; relief that she’s relatively unharmed, that the damage is not permanent, that even though he was responsible for her act of desperation, it has not resulted in anything that will not heal, with time.

It soon becomes apparent that Norma wants more from this bittersweet reunion than a new year’s kiss, and he is so exhausted from worry and the rush to get back to her that he would almost give in rather than argue… but she suddenly hisses in pain, drawing in a sharp breath, and they both pause.  Joe carefully untangles her arms from around his neck, and his throat closes over at the sight of blood seeping through the bandages around her wrists. 

When she sees the concerned and guilty expression on his face – he doesn’t bother to try and hide it – she offers a smile, as if to say it’s of no consequence.  She tries to kiss him again but he’s having none of it, the seriousness of his gaze halting her.

“Joe…?”

“Maybe this should wait,” he suggests.  “Until you’ve healed.”

“It’s nothing,” she says.  “Look, the bleeding’s stopped already.”

“Norma, please.  I… I don’t want to hurt you.”  He stops himself before he can add the word ‘ again’, but he wonders nonetheless if she’s thinking the same as him: that he’s already hurt her more than he can fathom, and would do anything to make it right.

She concedes quietly with a nod.

“I’ll get Max to change the dressings,” she says.

“No.  Let me.  It’s the least I…”  He sighs, meeting her gaze, his heart aching from not knowing what to do for the best.  “Please let me take care of you.”

Something changes in her eyes, and her demeanour, as she acquiesces.  The fire has gone out, and in its place is something deeper and more consuming.  He remembers catching a glimpse of it earlier in the evening, and being too scared to acknowledge it; now it gives him hope that all is not lost, that he can regain her trust and perhaps save himself along the way.

“You’ll have to ask Max where everything is…”

“Okay, I’ll do that.  You stay there.”

He finds Max in the kitchen, staring mournfully into a drink.  He has never known Max to partake of liquor before, and he is taken aback by the scene.  The older man regards him with suspicion, but does not say anything.  Joe mumbles out an explanation and although Max is clearly dubious, he nonetheless retrieves the items from a locked box beneath the sink, handing him bandages, ointment and painkillers, a soft cloth and a bowl of water.  The exchange is decidedly awkward, Max speaking only to provide instructions, and Joe vacates the room as quickly as possible with the supplies in hand.

On his return to Norma, she is still sitting quietly, her hands draped lifelessly in her lap.  She watches his every move as he approaches the sofa, lays down the items and pulls up a footstool to sit on.  He reaches for one of her hands and works silently, diligently, unwrapping the layers of bandages so he can start again.

The cut to her left wrist is much deeper than he had expected; in the back of his mind he already knows the other will not be so bad, because she’s right-handed and the first cut is always the deepest anyway, but the sight of it momentarily stuns him with a sick horror.  If Max had been only a minute too late…

He shakes off the thought, returning his attention to the task at hand.  He cleans the wound carefully; Norma bites her lip in obvious discomfort but does not flinch or pull away.  Next he applies the soothing ointment; the antiseptic smell is unsettling but necessary.  As he reapplies the bandages, he knows they need to be as tight as possible, fighting his instinct not to cause any further pain.

The process is repeated on her other wrist, quicker now he knows what he’s doing.  He admires his handiwork, if one can call it that – Max’s work was neater, but he’s doubtless had a lot of practice.  That unpleasant thought is a jolt of reality for Joe, as Norma’s words on his return to the house echo through his head:  “I’ll do it again… I’ll do it again…”

He makes himself a silent promise that as long as he’s around, she will never do it again.

Joe gathers the supplies again and moves them out of the way so that he can join her on the sofa.  She gazes at him for a moment, a myriad different emotions swimming in her eyes.  It is only when he finally takes her hands in his that she speaks.

“Thank you, Joe.”

He nods vaguely.  “Max… gave me some painkillers, if you need them.”

“No, I’ll be all right.”

That sense of relief overcomes him again and he gathers her close, pressing a kiss to her forehead.  She melts against him and he realises how exhausted she must be: it’s nearing one o’clock and the evening has taken them both through every conceivable extreme of emotion.

“You should probably get to bed,” he says.  “It’s been a long night.”

“I’m not tired,” she protests, though it is obviously untrue.  “I’d like to stay here a little longer.  Could you… just hold me for a while?”

“Whatever you want, Norma.”

He leans back against the sofa, Norma almost weightless in his arms as she rests against him.  She emits a contented sigh, and after a while her breathing becomes even as she drifts off to sleep.

He has no idea what the next year will hold for the pair of them, but he knows already that it will not be easy…

—N|J—

Norma slept, as she often did, coiled tightly against his side, wrapped around him like an extra blanket.  It brought her some peace, and Joe certainly did not begrudge her that.  The nightmares had only gotten worse since Paramount, her sleeping more erratic.  He had stayed with her almost every time since then, the nights where she did not wake in a terror becoming rarer as the weeks dragged on.

The situation was becoming increasingly untenable.  That intricate framework of untruths surrounding Norma was growing weaker by the day, like a house of cards one shaking hand away from toppling.  Norma held firm to her belief that Salome would be produced, but the cracks were starting to show.  She could be happily, enthusiastically rehearsing a scene, and the next second she would be crippled with self-doubt and lose focus.  More than one evening had been spent with Norma curled up in his lap on the sofa, exhausted from crying, as Joe murmured reassuring platitudes and allowed her to draw strength from him, as she always had.  These were the times Joe was almost grateful that the script would not see the light of day; he wasn’t sure she could cope with the pressure.

Max took the opportunity to remind him, with regular monotony, of Norma’s “moments of melancholy” and the manner in which she attempted to deal with them; Joe could only reassure him that he was more than aware of the danger.  Protecting Norma from herself had become his main priority.  Despite his dalliances with Betty Schaefer, he would only leave the house after reassuring himself that Norma was asleep and that she had retired to bed calm and relatively content.  If not, he had no choice but to stay; he was terrified of the consequences otherwise.

Norma’s actions during his brief absence on New Year’s Eve had hung over Joe like a shadow ever since, seizing his heart in a vice-like grip of guilt whenever he was reminded of it – which was often.  She was always finding an excuse to touch him – to hold his hand or tousle his hair – and the white scars were constantly in his periphery, bright against the paleness of her skin.  She would catch him staring dead ahead, lost in contemplation over what had happened, and he couldn’t explain what was wrong, because Norma herself had brushed it off as though it were nothing.

Of course, to her, it probably was nothing – just another failed attempt at her own life, a few more scars to add to her collection.  She approached hardship and potential heartbreak in the same melodramatic way as everything else in her life – overblown and without any thought for the consequences.  Or at least, no thought for how it might affect those around her, but of course that was entirely the point: she wouldn’t be there to worry about it.  Joe simply could not come to terms with the fact that Norma valued her own existence so little that she could merely snuff it out like a candle: nor with the fact that Max, despite his warnings, had not been vigilant enough to prevent her attempting it.

So far, Joe had managed to keep that promise to himself: Norma had not repeated her actions, content in the knowledge that whatever Joe felt for her, it was enough to keep him with her.  As the days turned into weeks and then into months, he had found himself spiralling deeper and deeper into the world Norma had constructed around herself.  And then Betty came along with Blind Windows, and he remembered what the outside world looked like, what fresh air tasted like; he felt a part of himself begin to break away from Norma and roam freely, and the rest of him yearned to follow.

He was determined to finish Blind Windows, with or without Norma’s knowledge, but he knew it would not guarantee him any kind of freedom.  If Sheldrake liked the screenplay and wanted to produce it, he would have to hand the entire thing over to Betty; he could not keep his name attached to it while Norma was still waiting for Salome to start production.  In the meantime, however, he would continue to visit Betty’s office at Paramount for their brief, illicit script-writing endeavours, and enjoy what little freedom it afforded him while it lasted.

—N|J—

The house on Sunset was besieged by an army of beauticians and therapists of varying skills, its previously empty rooms buzzing with energy and the overpowering scent of the lotions, potions and products which Norma was enduring in her bid to be ready for the big screen again.  Her astrologer swept from room to room, lighting incense and consulting charts, occasionally interjecting with some nonsense about dates and star signs.

Joe wisely escaped into the garden during the day, and to his bedroom in the evenings, until the coast was clear.  He had been surreptitiously working on the script whenever he could find a spare moment, looking at the finer details whilst Betty played her part in coming up with the ending.  He was well aware this was a dangerous endeavour, and he was particularly careful to make sure he did not leave it lying around where Norma or Max could find it.  The project was too far gone now to try and explain it to either of them.

At some point, however, he must not have been paying enough attention: he went to retrieve the script and found it inexplicably missing.  He searched all the usual hiding places within his room, trying not to draw any unnecessary attention to himself in the process, and when that failed he searched every nook and cranny, just in case he’d accidentally put it somewhere different – in a hurry, perhaps.  With a rising sense of panic, Joe’s searching became more and more frantic despite his best efforts to remain calm, until he’d finally exhausted every possibility and merely stood in the middle of the room in a state of despair.

Maybe it was elsewhere in the house.  He would have to wait until Norma was asleep and then –

A movement at the adjoining doors to Norma’s room alerted his attention, his panic notching up as she appeared in the doorway, holding something very familiar in her hands.

“Is this what you’re looking for, by any chance?”

Joe’s heart sank as he realised Norma had found the screenplay, in all of its incriminating glory, and he suddenly regretted all of the missed opportunities he’d had to tell her about it.  Anything he told her now would be inadequate after the weeks of secrecy, and she was bound to fear the worst rather than believe it was nothing more than an innocent script-writing endeavour.

He did not respond at first, merely reached for the script.  Norma held it back, refusing to hand it over until she had more information.

“Whose telephone number is this?”

Once again, he could not formulate a response; the evidence was before her anyway, Betty’s name scrawled above the digits on the front of the manuscript.  He pleaded silently for her to relinquish the screenplay, and thankfully at that point she relented and held it out to him.  Joe took it sheepishly, trying to formulate an explanation, but before he could speak Norma changed tactics, commenting on the areas of self-improvement she had managed to achieve through the persistence of her various assistants.  Joe responded placatingly, a little distracted and thrown by her evasive manoeuvres, and feeling distinctly as though something awful was waiting for him around the nearest corner.

Eventually, Norma announced she would be going to bed – she was under strict instructions lately to have an early night – and Joe suggested he would stay up and read for a while, hoping that would be the end of things.  Maybe he could tell her about the script properly in the morning, when she’d had some time to sleep on it.

“You went out last night, didn’t you?”

The question threw him again; he was struggling to keep up with her tonight, a position he hadn’t been in since his first few days at the mansion all those months ago, when her fluctuating moods had first begun to manifest.

“I went for a walk,” he proffered, hoping she would be convinced.

“You took the car,” she said accusingly.

Joe grimaced guiltily: yes, he had started borrowing the car as his meetings with Betty grew more frequent.  “All right – I drove to the beach.”

Finally, Norma came to the point she had been trying to avoid.  “Who’s Betty Schaefer?”

Tomorrow, he told himself again, rising to the bait despite his best efforts to keep a cool head.

“Surely you don’t want me to feel as if I’m a prisoner in this house?”

She approached him, wringing her hands together; the first sign of an oncoming attack of anxiety.  In his growing irritation, he could not bring himself to feel any sympathy.

“You don’t understand, Joe,” she explained.  “I’m under a terrible strain.  It’s been so hard I even bought myself a revolver.  The only thing that stopped me killing myself was the thought of all those people, waiting to see me back on the screen – how could I disappoint them?  All I ask is a little patience, a little understanding…”

It was something of a relief that Norma could admit she was feeling the pressure of the situation she found herself in; he had been worried for some time that she was firmly in denial in that regard, and that when the inevitable disappointment of Salome occurred it would be all the harder to deal with.  The mention of the revolver made him pause, however: he had been somewhat content in the knowledge that Norma had not felt such drastic measures were in order to address her so-called melancholia.   Now, instead, he felt infinitely frustrated that she had not spoken to him about it, and something softened in his heart, driving him to try and reassure her.

“Norma, there’s nothing to worry about.”  He reached for her hand.  “I haven’t done anything.”

The relief descended behind her eyes.  She was convinced, for now.  There was some truth to his words, at least: Betty was a nice girl, but she was Artie’s girl, and that effectively precluded Joe from approaching her even if he wanted to. Despite everything, he still had some morals left.

“Of course you haven’t.  Goodnight, my darling.”

She squeezed his hand in gratitude and went to kiss him, before remembering she was covered in one of the beautician’s strange-smelling concoctions and hesitating; Joe kissed the back of her hand instead, and she disappeared through the doors again.

As soon as the lights in her room had flicked off, Joe found his feet taking him out to the garage of their own accord.  He barely had time to think about his actions as he manoeuvred the great behemoth of a car out into the road, only that he felt suddenly claustrophobic and needed to get out – needed to see Betty and finish the script while he still had a chance.  Yes, he could tell Norma all about it tomorrow, but that was certainly no guarantee of her cooperation.  Not now; not after the months of keeping it from her.

Being on the road cleared his head a little, giving him some much-needed clarity.  He knew, deep down, that he should have stayed.  Norma was on a knife’s edge, desperately convincing herself that she had to be ready for her big moment in front of the cameras that would never turn.  Those telling moments of self-doubt were occurring more and more frequently; somewhere in the back of her mind she knew the truth, and was refusing to accept it.  He should have stayed with her, at the very least, to support his reassurances that nothing untoward was happening… but the outside world was calling, the desire to finish that story he’d never intended to participate in.  Norma’s world was like a whirlpool, dragging him down, and now that he’d started swimming against the current he didn’t want to stop.

He made the journey to Paramount on auto-pilot.  He would finish the script tonight no matter what.

—N|J—

Joe was in a state of turmoil as he drove back to the mansion, the familiar journey passing in a blur as his mind raced to make sense of the events of the past few hours.

The first surprise was finishing the screenplay.  Despite his promise to himself in that regard, he had not really expected it to happen.  Betty had worked hard over the past couple of days and her ending was sound; with a little polish it became a stirring but satisfying finale.  She was so excited by the prospect of finishing her first movie script that Joe was suddenly reminded of just how young she was: her exuberance and joy were tangible and he could not help but remember feeling the same way, all those years ago. 

They had celebrated by taking a stroll through the backlot – painted screens made to resemble a New York street, the finishing touches still being added by artists who were working through the night.  Whatever was being filmed had a dreary feel to it, which was not helped by the harsh overhead lights.  Betty was a beacon of colour, a breath of fresh air in the subdued night-time environment of the backlot, in a navy blue skirt and a sweater the colour of the sky: the same colour as her eyes, which for some reason he had never really noticed before.

Betty was not frivolous; she dressed sensibly, but never in dull or dreary colours.  She wore no jewellery except that ring from Artie: a simple band with a small diamond that occasionally caught the light with a dazzling prism effect; Artie must have saved for months to buy it.  She treated herself very rarely to an expensive perfume, applied sparingly so it lasted as long as possible.  She was shy and self-conscious and had not been born to grace the screen, though she was undoubtedly pretty and charming (but not pretty or charming enough, as it transpired), and moreover had no desire to do so.  Betty Schaefer was just an ordinary girl with extraordinary dreams, and perhaps the most “un-Hollywood” person Joe had encountered in all of his years there despite her third-generation roots. 

She was everything Norma was not.  The realisation of that hit him with a blinding clarity, afterwards, but it was not enough to assuage his guilt.  There was no real excuse for his actions; he could blame feeling trapped, or the heat of the moment, but in truth he had merely stopped thinking, glad of a silent reprieve if only for a short time.  Now, there were four hearts in the balance, and the noise in his head had increased tenfold.  He thought back again to what had happened, trying to make sense of it.

Joe had not really noticed Betty’s preoccupied state, at first, because he was too distracted by his own thoughts.  The script was finally finished, which meant that tomorrow he could sit Norma down and explain everything, content in the knowledge that even if she wasn’t happy with it, the entire thing was over and done with and she would have nothing further to worry about.  Once that decision was firmly entrenched in his mind, Joe came back to himself and focused on the matter at hand.

Water from the cooler was certainly an untraditional way of celebrating something, but he was sick of champagne anyway.  It was only when he went to hand Betty a cup that he realised how far away she was; she started when he touched her arm as though he’d burned her.

“Are you all right?”

“Sure.”

He immediately feared the worst: that somehow Betty had found out about his “unconventional” lifestyle and all of her preconceptions had been shattered.  Still, he wasn’t about to blurt it out for himself; better to let her come out with whatever she knew.

“Something’s the matter, isn’t it?”

“I… I had a telegram from Artie.”

Joe relaxed a little.  Anything she might have received from Artie could not be that terrible.  Maybe she was just missing him.

“Is anything wrong?”

“He wants me to come out to Tennessee,” she explained.  “He says it would only cost two dollars for us to get married in Clinch.”

He was halfway through encouraging her to do just that when he realised she had started crying.  So far he had only known Betty to be confident and upbeat, and her change in demeanour surprised him. 

“Why are you crying?” he asked.  “You’re getting married, isn’t that what you wanted?”

She shook her head, seeming to become more upset.  “Not any more.”

“Don’t you love Artie?”

“Of course I do!  I’m just… I’m just not in love with him any more, that’s all.”

“Why?  What happened?”

Betty turned her face to his; too late, he realised he already knew the answer.

“You did.”

In the deafeningly silent pause which followed, the first question to pop into his mind was to ask why.  Why – and how – had this happened to him twice?  First Norma, now Betty.  He had not intentionally led either of them on and yet both had fallen for him of their own accord.  He should have been flattered, but he was too confused.  His writing partnership with Betty was supposed to be just that; any ill feeling he might have had at the beginning, about treading on Artie’s toes whilst he was away on location, was quashed by that ring on Betty’s finger.  An engagement was a contract, in Joe’s eyes, an effective barrier to deflect any assumptions which might be made.

But this changed everything, and Joe’s weakness towards Norma’s moments of despair suddenly paled in comparison to what he felt now as Betty gazed at him with tearful, imploring eyes.  He reached for her unthinkingly, any comforting intent dispelled within seconds as she practically fell into his arms.  He couldn’t remember even now which of them had instigated the kiss, nor which of them had backed away first.

Their guilty expressions mirrored each other.  Betty held his gaze for a moment, looking troubled, then turned away and began making her way down the lot again.  Joe followed behind, listening intently as she explained about playing on film sets as a child and losing herself in a land of make-believe.  She was clearly looking to him for some guidance as to this strange new situation they found themselves in, hoping he could provide some perspective or make some sense of it – but in truth, he was just as confused by it as she was.

He tried to tell her how much better off she would be without him, that she shouldn’t look to him for any hope for the future.  No, she should stick with Artie: nice, sensible, unproblematic Artie Green, with his two-dollar wedding in Tennessee.  Even as he said it, he knew there was no point.  Something had altered, the new circumstances between them suddenly providing Joe with what seemed like an escape to a normal existence again.  Betty was smart and sweet and he liked her; maybe he even loved her a little bit, although he’d always had trouble admitting that even when it was true.  Even if he didn’t, he could see perfectly clearly that eventually he would, that there might be some kind of chance at longevity.

Betty could at least acknowledge that she should hate him for what had happened.  Her frustration was all too clear; she had a future planned out before Joe came along and seemingly erased it, no matter how unintentionally.  And yet, that future seemed to be rapidly fading into insignificance, as they both came to terms with their unexpected feelings for each other in that moment: feelings which had blossomed out of nowhere, or so it seemed, but were nonetheless valid.

The New York backdrop seemed to transport them away from the Paramount lot, despite its sombre design that seemed more befitting a detective story, as Joe’s final last-ditch attempt to advise against the course of action they were inevitably set upon was considered and ultimately rejected.  If he could not even convince himself how bad an idea it was, there was absolutely no way he could convince Betty – and so, he did not even try…

—N|J—

A series of familiar landmarks indicated to Joe that he was nearly back at the mansion, and he tried to drag his thoughts back to the present moment and the inevitable task that would face him the next day.

Norma had to know about the script, that much was certain, but now things had changed; he could no longer in good conscience say that there was nothing for her to worry about when it came to his relationship with Betty Schaefer.  If he tried to lie, Norma would doubtless see right through him.  A lingering sense of duty meant that he wanted to stay and support her through Salome, if she would let him, but he had a sinking suspicion she might simply turn him out without a second thought instead, once she knew the truth.

As he pulled into the garage, he caught a glimpse of his watch, noting with some relief that it was not yet 1.00am – a full hour earlier than he would usually return.  Hopefully Norma was still asleep and unaware of his absence.  Now, he just needed to get into the house undetected.

Fortune was not smiling on Joe Gillis tonight: he was barely even three steps from the garage when Max suddenly emerged from the shadows and barred his path, wearing a decidedly unpleasant expression.  He warned Joe to be careful when re-entering the house, in case Norma was watching – it was less a caution, more a fact.  Joe felt his frustration bubbling up, responding with more sarcasm than he had intended, and Max was clearly not impressed.  He felt like a petulant teenager who’d been caught sneaking out, and he regretted that they had never managed to find a common ground of even the most basic level of communication.

“It’s just that I am greatly worried about Madame,” Max explained, placatingly, as though he were trying to get Joe back on side.  There had been a number of times when he had attempted that, embroiling Joe in whatever deception was happening, in order to protect Norma from the painful truth; and yet he still did not trust him.

“We’re not helping her any,” Joe countered moodily, “feeding her lies and more lies.  What happens when she finds out they’re not going to make her picture?”

“She never will,” Max responded in an adamant tone.  “That is my job. I made her a star, and I will never let her be destroyed.”

Joe was unsure if he’d heard him right.  “What do you mean, you made her a star?”

Max hesitated only a moment before he responded, almost as though he had never intended for the words to be spoken.  Then it all came out.  Joe had never expected such brutal honesty from Max, nor such a display of emotion as he stumbled over that one big confession: “Please understand – she was my wife…”

Suddenly, everything in Norma’s world made sense: Max was both the instigator and the protector of her delusions, both her gaoler and her cellmate.  Joe wanted to know more, to understand why a great director like Max von Meyerling had given up fame and fortune to live out his years as Norma Desmond’s manservant – but there was no time to ask.  It was a story which would take hours, and he was already running out of time.  In the same moment, he realised he partway knew the answer – hadn’t he himself become just as ensnared by Norma, to a lesser degree?  Max was stuck even deeper, clinging desperately to a lost love, but did Norma even remember that?  Did she have any idea who Max had been?

“Are you saying you were married to her?”  Even as he asked this question, Joe realised how ridiculous it must have sounded, but he was only clamouring for a firm answer.

Max nodded solemnly.  “I was the first husband.”

Joe felt a pang of sympathy for him, but this latest piece of the puzzle of Norma’s existence made him uncomfortable.  It definitely explained the overbearing, invisible presence in his bedroom; there was every likelihood Max himself had used it once, all those years ago.  They had probably even bought the house together.

There were a thousand questions bombarding his mind.  How had it happened?  Was it a long courtship or a whirlwind romance?  How old would Norma have been?  Seventeen?  Eighteen?  Probably not old enough to know any better than to accept a proposal from the man who made her famous.  How long had it lasted?  Years?  Months?  His head was reeling as he tried to process what Max was telling him, all of the evening’s earlier events fading into insignificance.

Max continued, explaining about “the game” he had put in place to protect Norma and, indeed, himself – to share that one final dream with her.  He was clearly fighting off a wave of emotion as he spoke, acknowledging that it would never have come true.  And yet he remained determined that even this inevitable disappointment would not dampen Norma’s spirits.

“I will not allow her to surrender.”

Joe did not know what to say to that.  His whole perception of Max had been turned upside down, and for several seconds all he could do was stare at him, trying to make sense of everything he’d just heard.  Eventually, Max regained his composure, as he was so adept at doing, and when he spoke again it was with his usual stoic delivery.

“You should get inside, Mr Gillis.  Madame will be worried if she finds you gone.”

With that, he melted back into the shadows, leaving Joe alone on the driveway.  Casting a glance towards the house again, he noted that there were lights still on within its interior, confirming his suspicion and Max’s warning that Norma was probably waiting for him.  He made his way quietly towards the door, opening it carefully.

As he stepped over the threshold he became aware of a voice in the otherwise silent space of the mansion: Norma’s voice, speaking distantly into a telephone, the sound emanating from upstairs.  He froze in place as he realised who she was talking to – “Hello, Miss Schaefer, you must forgive me for calling so late…” – and it was only the mention of his own name which jolted him into action again. 

He closed the door as quietly as possible, climbing the stairs and heading towards Norma’s room.  She was unaware of his presence as he hesitated by the adjoining doors in his own room, listening intently to the one-sided conversation on the other side.  She must have copied down the number, he realised belatedly – how naïve of him to assume that she would not bother.  He should have told her the truth when she’d asked, before she had any reason to be suspicious. 

He was barely aware of entering the room and snatching the receiver from Norma, before he was speaking into it himself, providing Betty – if it really was Betty, of course, and not just Norma addressing an empty telephone line to provoke a reaction – with the address and hanging up with more force than was really necessary.  All he could think was how foolish he had been not to expect that Norma might do something silly… but at least it was better than turning that revolver on herself.

In fact, he realised, that was the entire reason he was so angry.  He had given up everything – his career, his home, his entire life, as little as these things amounted to – to be with Norma, because the thought that she might have hurt herself for his sake was too painful to contemplate.  But now she wanted to hurt Betty, and that was something very different.  He would not allow another innocent bystander to be caught in Norma’s trap.  She could even hurt him, if necessary – but not Betty, that sweet girl who had no idea she’d done anything to deserve it.

In a daze, Joe headed back downstairs and took up residence on the couch, awaiting Betty’s arrival and steeling himself for whatever might happen next.  Norma followed him as far as the landing, pleading with him – “Shout at me.  Strike me.  But say you don’t hate me, Joe, please…” – but he barely even registered her words.  He could not bring himself to answer, in any case.  ‘Hate’ was too strong a word for what he was feeling.  He mostly felt nothing except a slowly growing resentment for the house and everything in it, including himself.

Norma quietened eventually, waiting, watching from the safety of the landing, as though he was a wild animal preparing to pounce.  He did not have the energy for that – he barely had the energy to do anything now except sit in silence – and instead his thoughts began to wander as he tried to remember how he’d ended up in this Godawful mess.  The images flashed before him in a confused jumble, as though someone had collected cuttings from the floor of an editing room and pasted them back together in the wrong order…

  

His car limps into an unfamiliar driveway and he pulls into a garage that isn’t empty.  “You there!  Why are you so late?”

The script is finished and on its way to De Mille.  Norma is panicking and he touches her hand.

Artie lends him a twenty, but Sheldrake has nothing for him.  His car is towed away.  Norma’s car is bigger, and now it’s freshly polished and on its way to Paramount.

They disembark at Stage 18.  Betty is typing away in her sunlit office, a splash of colour in a monochromatic world.  He clings to Norma in anguish, unable to reciprocate her feelings.  She's so beautiful today and he could never deserve her.

Artie and Betty leave Schwab’s arm in arm and he feels a little jealous of their easy affection.  Betty is crying because she’s not in love with Artie any more.

Max is waiting, always watching.  The first husband.  “Madame has been married four times.”  (No, not four – it was only three.  Damn it, Gillis, you are not the fourth.)

Betty is dancing with Artie on New Year’s Eve in her pretty green party dress, and it twirls as she spins towards him.  He catches her and they whirl across the terrazzo, and when they stop it’s Norma he’s staring at, a black-and-white vision from an old photograph.  “Happy New Year, darling” as she pulls him close with bandaged arms around his neck.

He’s breathless from her kiss and her childishly wandering fingertips, and in the morning sunlight his heart almost betrays him.  “I’m in love with you.  Surely you know that?”

Betty falls towards him and they embrace like it’s the end of the world.  He dries Norma’s tears with his handkerchief.  “We should call it a day...”  That photograph flutters to the attic floor and seems to beckon to him. 

“The address is 10086, Sunset Boulevard…”  The doorbell rings.

 

Joe came to with a start and a sharp intake of breath, the residual images stuttering out of existence and leaving him even more confused and addled than before.

He could feel Norma watching him, her gaze penetrating in the silence, which was punctuated only by the ticking of the hallway clock and his own footsteps as he approached the front door, his feet taking him of their own volition before he had even made the conscious decision to answer it.

Betty was on the other side, looking very small and scared, clearly overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place and its shadowy, eerie appearance.  Joe ushered her through the door and she stepped slowly over the threshold, taking in her surroundings with obvious trepidation, as though something might jump out of the shadows and attack her.  Joe remained half-aware of Norma, motionless on the landing above; if she made any movement towards Betty, he would not hesitate to place himself in the crossfire.

In that instant, in a moment of almost blinding clarity, Joe knew exactly what he needed to do.  He had tried to warn Betty away from himself only a few hours ago without success, because she was blinded by the image of him that she’d built up in her head.  He needed to shatter that illusion like the fragile glass it was, to make Betty fully aware of what she had unwittingly gotten herself into.  If she wanted to stay after that, well, that was entirely up to her – at least Joe could rest a little easier knowing she was fully informed.

Betty stared at him imploringly, needing answers.  Norma’s telephone call had clearly shaken her up, but she had come all the way here nonetheless, hoping Joe could shed some light on the situation.  There was no way of breaking it to her gently: he began to reel off a list of the mansion’s enviable attributes – some of which even he had not made use of – aware that his tone came across as harsh and boastful, despite the irony he was trying to inject into his words.  Betty merely cast her eyes around in a daze, his diatribe barely registering.

“Who’s it belong to?” she asked eventually, realising at least that Joe himself was not the owner of such extravagance.

“Just look around,” he suggested, gesturing expansively towards the collection of memorabilia.

Betty stared blankly for a moment, then recognition dawned.  “That’s Norma Desmond.”

Joe wondered if Norma would be impressed that this young girl recognised her – or even pleased that she was not forgotten after all.

“Right on the money.  They’re all Norma Desmond.”

Betty shook her head, trying to understand; she had clearly not made the connection to that name engraved in his cigarette case.  “But… why did she call me?”

The poor, sweet girl – she really had no idea how the world worked.  Joe almost felt sorry for her, but this was no time to cushion the blow.  She needed to understand.  So he explained, as best he could – none of the gory details, of course – watching with a heavy heart and a grim satisfaction as the light slowly dawned in her eyes.  The way she was looking at him had already changed, from concern to sympathy, but that wasn’t right either.

“Just get your things.  Let’s get out of here.”

She was determined to rescue him, but he was too far gone.  Betty was not, however, and he realised with a pang of guilt that he would need to hurt her to save her.

“All my things?  Are you crazy?  All the suits and the cufflinks and the pocket watches?  Why would I want to leave this luxury behind?  What’s left for me out there?  Just a mouldy old apartment and a battered typewriter that barely paid my rent.”

There were tears in her eyes but she tried to maintain some semblance of dignity.  “There’s me, Joe.  If you feel anything for me…”

Oh, but he did – that was why he had to send her away before she became a part of this disaster.  He would make her hate him, if necessary – if that was what it took to make her leave this place and forget about him.

“Be realistic, Betty.  There’s nothing I can give you out there that you can’t get from Artie.  You should marry him like you planned.  He’s a great guy – safe and secure.  You’ll be good together.”  He had unconsciously walked her back towards the door.  “Maybe when you’re settled, you can pay me a visit and take a dip in my pool.”  He flicked a switch on the wall and the pool lit up, glowing ominously from the shadowy garden, its surface rippling slightly in the night-time breeze.

Betty was silent now, staring dead ahead.  When she finally spoke again, her voice breaking, Joe knew it was over.

“I can’t look at you any more, Joe.”

And yet, she half-turned her head, as though she was about to face him and dig a little deeper for some semblance of the man who only two hours ago had claimed to be in love with her.  Then she changed her mind, heading determinedly down the driveway and into her car.  The beam from her headlights momentarily blinded him as she manoeuvred into the road and drove away.

He waited until she was clear of the block before closing the door again with a decisive thud.  His plan had worked a little too well; he would definitely not be seeing Betty Schaefer again, and in all likelihood Artie too.

In the silence and solitude of the mansion, he suddenly felt the entire universe come crashing down around him.  The surge of adrenaline which had buoyed him through the altercation with Betty had worn off, leaving him empty and drained.  A wave of emotion rolled over him and he had no option but to let it take hold, tears of frustration and anger pouring out of him.  He had sent Betty away for her own good, an act of selflessness disguised as cruelty, and he had nothing left to give.

The onslaught did not last long; within a few seconds he managed to regain control of himself, no longer caring if Norma had witnessed the display.  She had undoubtedly watched the entire scene play out below her and drawn her own conclusions from his actions.  But Norma meant nothing to him now – it was time to go.  He needed to get out and return to his previous, humdrum existence, his life before Norma, before Salome, before Hollywood.  There was a copy-desk with his name on it back in sleepy, unglamorous Ohio.

With a new-found determination, he made his way upstairs to pack.

He passed Norma on the way, as she emerged from her hiding place and rose to her full, diminutive height, exuding a confidence he knew was an act.

“Thank you, Joe,” she said, following him.  “Thank you… thank you…”

She reached for his hand, but in his haste to get away, her fingers closed instead around his wrist.  He halted only long enough to peel them away again, then continued on his way.  She went after him and he ignored her.

Norma hovered in the doorway, watching his every move as he retrieved his old suitcase and began packing items into it.  The new suits she’d bought him would doubtless last him a couple more years, but he chose not to take them, instead rooting around the wardrobe for his old items.  The cufflinks he was wearing caught his eye and he removed them with a frustrated scowl, at which point Norma finally entered the room to intervene.

“What are you doing, Joe?”

He did not answer, merely held out the cufflinks and dropped them into her open palm.  A tiny flicker of remorse struck his heart at the sight of those now-familiar scars, but he managed to suppress it; he would not be swayed in his decision.

The realisation had dawned on Norma’s face.  “You’re not… leaving me?”

“Yes, I am, Norma.”

“No, you can’t.  Max!”

He was fairly sure Max would be glad to see the back of him, and could not quite see what calling for him would achieve.  Of course, there was always the possibility that Max’s loyalty to Norma would override his animosity towards Joe, and he hoped fervently that there would not be any kind of physical altercation.  It had been far too long since the days of schoolyard fisticuffs, and in any case he was pretty sure Max would have the upper hand.

Hopefully, it would not come to that; he tried to keep a calm head.  Norma’s breathing had started to speed up, the first indication of an attack of anxiety… and he could not quite bring himself to care any more, realising with a flash of clarity that Norma’s moments of vulnerability had been his one weakness from the beginning.  Her tendency towards panic had always occurred at the most convenient of times – he was not entirely convinced it was a conscious reaction on her part, but perhaps a behaviour which had become second nature.  He felt like an idiot for falling for it.

Max appeared at the doorway, looking as though he had arrived at a run, and Joe felt the strangest urge to set the record straight, now that he had a witness: to give a final, parting gift to Norma of the truth she’d been denied.

“Before I go, there’s something I should tell you,” he said, noticing the barely perceptible shake of Max’s head and choosing to disregard it.  “That script of yours… De Mille was just being kind.  We all were.  It’s not getting shot.  Honestly, Norma… it’s hopeless.  God knows, I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t have it.”

The mask of denial slipped into place.  “That’s a lie.  The audience is still out there.  They still want me.  Look at all the fanmail.”

“It’s Max who writes them,” he told her, and the accused looked suddenly queasy.  “There is no audience.  They moved on when you weren’t paying attention.  The world has changed.”

Norma deflated as the reality of his words dawned on her.  “Why are you being so cruel, Joe…?”

“It’s not cruelty, Norma – it’s just the truth.  What’s cruel is lying to you all these years.  But I guess I’ve been just as guilty of that, so I figured it was time to be honest.”

She had no response to that, and she could not bring herself to look at Max, either, who was now looking decidedly unwell despite his obvious fury at Joe.  There was time for one final truth before he walked away.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being fifty – not unless you try to act twenty.”

Norma took a step away from him then, taken aback by his brutal honesty, and he took that as his cue to leave.  He gathered up his suitcase and his battered old typewriter, and headed determinedly towards the stairs.

Her voice sounded behind him, determined and proud: “I am the greatest star of them all…”

“Goodbye, Norma,” he responded, half to himself as he reached the stairs; he was not particularly bothered if she’d heard him.

He was halfway down when she started to chase after him, her lighter footsteps followed by Max’s slower, heavier ones.  Joe kept going, refusing to look back.

“No-one ever leaves a star…”

He was vaguely aware of Norma muttering these words, but he paid no attention, pulling open the front door and stepping out into the approaching dawn.

There was a bang and suddenly his right shoulder exploded in searing pain, the typewriter falling from his hand and clattering to the ground.  He remembered the revolver, the force of the gunshot turning him around in a half-circle.  He caught a glimpse of something glinting in Norma’s hand as she stood in the doorway, seconds before another bang and a rush of pain in his left side.  She’d only grazed him this time, but he turned around again and broke into a run, abandoning the suitcase because it was only slowing him down.

A third shot sounded and he ducked instinctively, but the pain in his shoulder and side made him stagger and lose his balance.  He tripped over a loose patio slab and could not find his footing, the glow of the illuminated pool rushing into his field of vision as he tried to stop himself from falling and failed.  Before he hit the water, his head impacted sharply against something solid and cool, his vision blurring as he landed with a splash and immediately sank.  He tried to resurface but the darkness was encroaching, closing in over his head like quicksand.

And then, finally, there was blessed silence.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

PART FOUR

February, 1950 – two months earlier…

“Make sure you look your best later, Joe – I have a little surprise for you.”

These instructions from Norma came back to him as he stared into the wardrobe, deciding on what to wear.  He had no idea what her surprise might entail, as she had been mysteriously elusive for most of the morning and he had been banished upstairs since lunchtime.  His attempts to wheedle information out of Max were equally as fruitless.  He knew that whatever he considered to be his “best” would not match up to Norma’s exacting standards, but eventually he decided on a cream-coloured suit – perhaps a little light for February, but it was an overcast, dreary sort of day, and he didn’t feel like adding any more grey to the proceedings – and a dark blue tie to add some colour. 

He surprised himself by reaching automatically for a pair of cufflinks and fixing them effortlessly, rather than his stumbling efforts when they were first bought for him.  His new lifestyle was becoming second nature; he had to pause for a moment to re-evaluate where he’d ended up, and why.  The clothes he came with back in October– or rather, the clothes which were brought to him – were taking up a tiny corner of one wardrobe, looking old and shabby, and despite Norma’s gentle persuasion for him to throw them out, he couldn’t quite bring himself to do so.  In his own mind, he knew this arrangement would not be permanent, and when he inevitably returned to his old lifestyle, he was not willing to abuse Norma’s generous nature by taking everything with him.

The hallway clock chimed seven, indicating that he needed to make his way downstairs.  He examined himself in the mirror with a final, still-indecisive shrug, and headed towards the landing.

As he descended to the lower floor of the house, he could see already that the lights had been dimmed and the room was lit only by lamps and the glow of the fireplace, deepening the permeating shadows.  An old-fashioned gramophone was tucked away in a darkened corner somewhere, whilst a warbling 1920’s record (it sounded like the Great Caruso) filled the silence: infinitely better than listening to the wind wheezing through the organ, although he could still just about hear it in the background.

At the bottom of the stairs, he was taken aback and somewhat amused to find Max, dressed like a waiter with a serviette draped over one arm.  His face was its usual impassive mask, revealing nothing.

“What’s going on, Max?”

He didn’t answer, merely waved his arm in a sweeping gesture towards the room.  “If you would please follow me, Sir.”

Joe acquiesced, his curiosity rising as he trailed behind Max and they crossed the terrazzo – freshly waxed – towards the French doors leading to the patio.  As they approached, a small table came into view, with two chairs and a white tablecloth, a vase of flowers and a candle in an elegant holder at its centre.  An ice bucket stood beside it containing a bottle of champagne.  There were other candles, too, dotted around the various surfaces, their reflections flickering in the glass of photograph frames.  The French doors had been left slightly ajar to let in the evening air – fresh-smelling from an earlier bout of rain, but not too chilly: a slight breeze blew in and the candle-flames danced and sputtered, but continued burning.

“What’s the occasion?” asked Joe, as Max pulled out a chair and indicated for him to sit in it.

“You have not forgotten the date, Mr Gillis?”

Joe wracked his brain; he knew it was February from the turning of the weather, the dwindling of the rain and the slowly increasing temperatures, but beyond that he had lost track of time.  Everything had merged together; he had no idea what day of the week it was, let alone the specific date; he hadn’t seen a newspaper in weeks.  It couldn’t be Norma’s birthday, because although she wouldn’t reveal the precise day, he knew it was in November from her star-sign.  (A month ago, he would not even have known that.)

“Care to enlighten me?”

“It is February 14th,” Max informed him.

“Valentine’s Day?  But… but I had no idea.  Norma’s not expecting anything, is she?”

Max smiled, a little sadly.  “No, Sir.  She did not expect you to remember.  Would you care for some champagne?”

Max’s ability to effortlessly deflect difficult subjects never ceased to amaze him.   Joe nodded absently, and a flute of champagne appeared in front of him.  He hoped that Norma’s surprise was just this – an intimate meal in the comfort of her own home – and not another expensive gift, especially as there was no way he could reciprocate.  The setting was overly and obviously romantic, but that did not panic him as much as it would have done a few weeks ago.

It had been somewhat difficult to define their relationship over the past six weeks.  His decision to return on New Year’s Eve – and indeed to stay, thereafter – was undoubtedly a turning point, with Norma’s feelings out in the open and him finally coming to terms with them.  For the first few days of the new year, she had been drained and weary, exhausted from the events of her catastrophic party, barely leaving her room but always overwhelmingly relieved to discover that Joe was still around whenever she emerged.  Within a week or so, she was more like herself again: an occasional whirlwind of overbearing activity during the day, but quieter and more contemplative during the evenings. 

She seemed cautious, at first, as though she did not want to frighten him off again.  That was understandable, and Joe had exercised the utmost patience, knowing that he needed to gain her trust.  Yes, it would have been easier just to play the role she had assigned from the outset, but if Joe had learned anything from his time at the mansion it was that Norma benefitted from gentle persuasion and quiet compliance.

The situation he now found himself in was exceedingly uncertain; he had not anticipated the effect of her desperate actions on his own conscience.  He would stay, if only to prevent that from happening again.  Despite everything, he had grown increasingly fond of her: he cared what happened to her, more than he cared for his own circumstances.  The Joe Gillis who had stumbled into her driveway was not the same Joe Gillis who now found himself the object of her slowly growing affections.

It was also becoming harder and harder to deny that there was a spark of mutual attraction at play, and that perhaps there always had been.  He was surrounded on a daily basis by photographs of Norma as a young twenty-something: framed publicity shots and commissioned pictures and, of course, that ridiculous portrait dominating the living room.  That same photograph from his own childhood was also amongst them; he hadn’t deliberately gone looking for it, but occasionally it took him by surprise, wrenching the memory back to the forefront of his mind.  Except he wasn’t eleven years old any more, and the photograph’s subject was no longer a mystery, and he could no longer avoid the fact that he found her beautiful even now: in a different way, undoubtedly, but it was pointless trying to convince himself otherwise.

He understood now that the collection of memorabilia was not just a reflection of an over-inflated ego, but Norma’s attempt to remind herself of what she perceived to have been her happiest days.  (Max had quietly informed him one day that she hadn’t always lived like this: that the collection had slowly started growing fifteen years ago and he had only noticed when it was too late to do anything about it.)  Joe was never quite sure how Norma saw herself these days; whilst she had to be aware of the passing of time, her house was locked in its own era.  Her self-perception seemed to fluctuate alongside her moods; she seemed so much more youthful when she was happy, radiating confidence and exuberance, and it was in those moments that his breath caught in his throat unexpectedly.

As Norma’s confidence in his presence grew, she became more open and obvious in her affections.  She would surreptitiously snuggle up to him on the sofa, relaxing against him with a relieved sigh when his arm came to rest around her shoulders.  If he was standing at the window or the patio doors, staring out at the torrential rain (as he was wont to do, as a writer in name if not in practice), Norma would come up behind him and wrap her arms around his waist, her head resting against his back; he would reach to gently touch her forearm or her hand in reassurance, and then she would withdraw, her warmth disappearing and leaving him shivering in the sudden chill.

On rarer occasions, if he was passing through the lounge, she would suddenly emerge from the shadows and reach for him, examining him in the half-light as her hands framed his face.  She had not verbally conveyed her feelings for him since New Year’s Eve, but her eyes betrayed her nonetheless, mere seconds before she would pull him down into a kiss: infinitely tender but clearly holding back from what she truly wanted to express.  She would be content to remain there, wrapped in his arms, and as time went on he found his thoughts turning to how well they fit together: Norma’s smaller frame held tight against his, her head tucked under his chin.  He was often surprised by just how tiny she was; despite her small stature, she carried herself with a statuesque grace which made her appear much taller.

Joe was distracted from his rambling thoughts by the unmistakable sound of Norma’s heels as she crossed the tiled floor.  He turned to look at her, and found himself rising to his feet as well, the chair scraping across the floor as he did so.

It seemed disrespectful to remain seated in the presence of an almost regal-looking Norma.  She was a vision in midnight blue silk, set off with onyx jewellery that glittered unassumingly in the candlelight; and yet, despite the obvious effort she had gone to, her demeanour was self-conscious, her gaze meeting his but quickly averting again when she noticed that he was utterly unable to tear his eyes away from her.  Whilst he was quite sure that was the effect she had been aiming for, she seemed surprised it had actually worked.

She finally came to a halt near the table and for a moment they merely regarded each other in silence.  Then Joe finally remembered his manners.

“Well, good evening, Miss Desmond.”

She relaxed somewhat, and played along.  “Good evening, Mr Gillis.”

“I feel a little underdressed,” he noted.  “Maybe I should’ve worn the tails.”

A look of disappointed panic crossed her features.  “Do you think this is too much?  I had such trouble deciding.  I suppose it was silly of me… after all, it’s not as though we’re going anywhere…” 

Her indecision was coming to the forefront again, so he intervened.

“Norma… I was just kidding.  You look…”  He struggled to find the right word, faltering under her gaze as one eyebrow rose in query.  He wasn’t brave enough to say what he was thinking, so he attempted Max’s favourite technique of deflection instead.  “Hey, did you spy on me?  It looks like we match.”

He looked down towards his tie, which in the low light was a similar shade of blue to her dress.  Thankfully, Norma emitted a gentle laugh at his observation, shaking her head to indicate it was indeed a coincidence.

The tension dispelled, Joe crossed to the opposite side of the table and pulled out the other chair for her.  He could at least make up for his lack of ability to verbalise himself by utilising all the chivalry he could muster, especially after the effort she’d gone to.  Max re-emerged at that point to fill Norma’s champagne glass; his gaze lingered perhaps a little too long, as well, before he straightened again and assumed his role for the evening.

“The chef has advised me that first course is ready, Sir, Madame.”

“Chef?” asked Joe.

“But of course,” responded Norma.  “There are certain areas where Max’s considerable skills are lacking, and I’m afraid fine cuisine is one of them.”

Max nodded self-deprecatingly, though he was perhaps glad not to be stuck in the kitchen all night; waiting on their table was doubtless a lot less taxing.  Joe had never had any cause to complain about Max’s cooking before, but he certainly wouldn’t protest about a little outside catering, either.

Norma instructed Max to bring the first course and he disappeared in the direction of the kitchen again.  In the brief silence which followed, Joe suddenly remembered why they were having this dinner in the first place, and he felt renewedly guilty for having forgotten the date.

“Norma, look, I… I didn’t realise what day it was, and I haven’t gotten you anything.  I’m sorry.”

“That doesn’t matter, Joe.  I don’t need anything.  I only did this because I… I wanted to let you know what you mean to me.”

He floundered for what to say in response to that, but thankfully he was saved by the arrival of Max with their first course. 

The meal passed in silence, for the most part, other than comments as to the quality of the food.  Whoever the chef was that Norma had hired, it had been money well spent.  Joe could not remember the last time he’d had such an impressively fine meal, if he’d had one at all.  In the meantime, Max kept the champagne and the music flowing, emerging at precisely the right moment to refill their glasses or replace one finished record with another.

At some point the rain started up again – a light drizzle that slowly turned into a downpour.  Max went to close the French doors, but Norma instructed him not to bother.  As long as the wind did not pick up, there was no danger of the rain blowing in.  The warbling gramophone and the patter of raindrops against the patio made for a pleasant combination, both of them lapsing into silence as they worked their way slowly through the dessert course of crème brûlée.  Whilst it was clearly a flawless example of the dish, rich and sweet with a glass-like layer of burned caramel on top, Joe struggled to finish it after the rest of the meal.  He made sure to ask Max to pass his compliments on to the chef, and to explain that he did not have much of a sweet tooth.

After dinner, Norma excused herself and disappeared upstairs for a few minutes.  Once Max had finished clearing their plates and made himself scarce again, Joe left the table and moved nearer to the French doors, watching the rain as it beat against the patio.  Now that he was closer, it drowned out the sound of the gramophone almost entirely.

He heard Norma approaching, but did not turn around.  She came up behind him, as always, wrapping her arms around his waist; his hands came to rest over hers and their fingers laced together, an instinctive gesture that surprised him at how easily it occurred.  In her heels, Norma was almost able to see over his shoulder, and he could feel her stretching up to try and follow the line of his gaze.

“What is it about the rain that you find so fascinating, Joe?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It calms me, I guess: helps me think more clearly.”

She accepted his explanation without further comment, and for a moment they remained like that: Joe watching the rain, Norma watching him.  Several of the candles had now burned to nothing; as another one finally sputtered and extinguished itself, he gently extricated himself from her arms and turned to face her.

“Thank you for dinner, Norma.”

“No, thank you, Joe.”

She did not elaborate any further on that, but he understood her meaning nonetheless.  She was grateful for everything: for his work on the script, for his return to her, for his decision to stay, and for countless other, smaller things which were probably insignificant to anyone but Norma.  Sometimes, the extent of her gratitude was overwhelming and he felt more than a little undeserving.

The background music filtered back into his consciousness and he realised its tone had changed from the genteel operatics of Caruso, which had accompanied their meal, to the somewhat more contemporary sound of Ivor Novello.  Whether that was intentional or not, he didn’t know, but it planted an idea in his head nonetheless.

He held out a hand towards her.  She stared at it, and him, in surprise.

“Come on,” he encouraged, indicating with his head towards the terrazzo, and with a radiant smile she dropped her hand into his and allowed him to lead her to the middle of the tiled floor.

They had not danced together since New Year’s Eve, he suddenly realised.  The music wasn’t right for a tango, so he hoped Norma would settle for something a little less elaborate.  He started to lead her in an easy dance across the tiles and she fell into step with him automatically.  He could not help but remember that fateful evening: Norma’s impromptu tango lesson and her joyful laughter as he finally got into the swing of it, that feeling of being somewhat detached from reality until the seriousness of the situation had struck him, and of course his catastrophic decision to flee rather than face up to what was happening.  It had been a very confusing night, all told.  Strangely enough, tonight he had partaken of far more champagne, yet he felt considerably less fuzzy-headed and much more aware of his actions.

Perhaps it had been the fear of the unknown which had affected him more that night: the sense that something was coming beyond his control.  He had tried to bury his head in the sand rather than face it, and things had spiralled before he could stop them.  But now he was fully aware of the situation, and whilst the depth of Norma’s as-yet-unrepeated feelings still occasionally terrified him, he had at least come to accept them.  He could not reciprocate, but he felt enough for her that he did not regret his decision to stay, at least for a while.

The song finished and another started up, slower this time, and Norma drew in closer.  For some time, she merely rested her head contentedly against his shoulder as they drifted slowly across the terrazzo.  After a while, however, she moved back a little and looked at him with a curious, questioning expression.  When she finally managed to verbalise them, it was apparent that her thoughts had been following a similar pattern to his own.

“Why did you come back, Joe?”

The question took him by surprise, and he thought carefully over how to answer.  In truth, his return that night had been borne of too many conflicting emotions to tie down, the most predominant of which had been overwhelming guilt over her actions – actions which had been brought on by his behaviour.  He could not tell her that, though; she needed more.

“Because I… I realised I needed to face up to what had happened.  I didn’t mean to hurt you; I was just… surprised, when you told me how you felt.  I ran because I couldn’t handle what it might mean.”

He examined her face for any kind of indication that he might be saying the wrong thing, but she was gazing at him patiently – waiting for him to finish.  He had never been able to explain any of this to her before, nor even to himself.  He sighed, and continued, hoping that the truth would not prove fatal.

“I was going to leave for good.  I was so angry with how things had turned out – with myself, for not anticipating it.  I just needed to get out.  But when I called and Max told me what you’d tried to do…”

Something unidentifiable flickered in Norma’s eyes, and she looked away from him, averting her gaze as she stepped backwards, out of his arms.  She had come to the one conclusion he was hoping to avoid: that his return to her was purely out of sympathy or culpability.  Joe acted quickly to try and rectify things, reaching to gently grasp her upper arms.  She did not raise her head, but she did not try to move away, either; he took that as a positive sign to continue.

“I was scared, Norma.  The thought that you might have hurt yourself because of me…”  She still could not quite bring herself to look at him.  “Despite everything, I’d come to think of you as a friend, and I cared about you.  Everything just happened so fast…”

She finally raised her eyes to his and he was surprised to note that she was not as upset as he’d thought; instead she fixed him with a contemplative expression.  He could not shake the feeling that he was being tested, however, so he approached the situation warily.

“A friend?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Nothing more than that?”

Despite Norma’s nonchalant tone, he was well aware that the conversation they had unwittingly wandered into could be potentially dangerous.  He picked his words carefully.

“Well, I…  I didn’t know things were going to change…”

“It’s not as though I planned it, Joe,” she said, suddenly frustrated.  “The last thing I wanted was to make things any more complicated than they already were.  I tried to fight it, but… but I thought, if there was even a chance you felt the same way then maybe it would be worth the risk.  But I was wrong… wasn’t I?”

She suddenly pulled out of his grasp, her eyes flashing angrily, though he could not tell whether it was directed towards herself or him.  Then she abruptly turned away from him and headed back towards the French doors.

Most of the candles had burned out, the makeshift dining area almost completely dark except for the background lamplight and the eerie glow of from the moon as it struggled through the clouds overhead. The rain had continued unabated; Norma stood and watched it in silence, rubbing her bare arms against the night-time chill.

Joe debated with himself for a moment over whether to approach, or let her come to him.  In the end, his conscience won out and he took a few tentative steps nearer.  She had obviously heard him, her stance tensing slightly as though she were preparing to flee, but he did not let that deter him as he made his way towards her.  He made no move to touch her, and he did not speak, hoping that his presence would be enough to draw Norma back from the self-protective bubble she had withdrawn into.

Eventually she spoke again, sounding more resigned and less furious than her demeanour had indicated.

“I was so stupid to allow myself to fall for you.  I realise that now.  I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.  When you came back to me, I almost didn’t believe it… and even now, I can’t say I understand why you’ve stayed as long as you have.”

“Because I want to be here.”  Even as he said it, he realised with some surprise that it was the truth.  He took a tentative step forward and placed a hand on her shoulder.  “Because I still care for you.”

That only seemed to make her more upset.  “Yes, and it would be so much easier if you felt nothing for me.  If I could just send you away…”

“And then do what?  Hurt yourself again?”

He was shocked at how fervently those words had come out, as indeed was Norma; she turned to him with a slightly startled expression, his hand falling away as she did so.  He had not wanted to raise his voice, but at least it had provoked a reaction.  Norma did not respond, at least not verbally: unable to deny his assumption, but equally unable to voice it as truth.  Sensing that some of the wall had crumbled, Joe reached for her hand, turning it palm up.

She had fully healed some weeks ago.  He remembered that particular morning with a striking clarity even now: she had emerged from upstairs as usual, and he noticed within moments that the bandages had gone.  No words had been required; Norma caught the line of his gaze and gave a nod of confirmation, responding to his sad smile of acknowledgement by pressing a kiss to his cheek.  It was a bittersweet moment, and one he was not likely to forget.

Nonetheless, the scars had remained, and quite probably always would, to serve as a permanent reminder of a mistake he was continually attempting to fix.  He caressed the white mark with his thumb almost unconsciously.

“Norma, whatever you feel for me… whatever you felt for me that night… it shouldn’t have led to this.  I’m not worth hurting yourself over.”

Tears glistened in her eyes and she surged towards him, pressing herself into his arms, suddenly overwhelmed.  He held her for a moment, stroking her back comfortingly until she calmed; she shivered, chilled from the outside air, and instinctively moved closer, insinuating her arms around him inside the warm cocoon of his jacket.  Her hands were cold against his back, penetrating the fabric of his shirt, but he did not flinch away.

This was different to her usual moments of weakness; there was no indication of increasing panic, just a deep, emotional abyss of a pain he was unable to fully relieve.  He felt a pang of guilt that he had inadvertently ruined her romantic evening, though it was certainly not yet over, and there was more than enough time to save the situation.  He had no intention of running away this time.

When Norma spoke again, her words came out in a whispered rush, as though she had been wanting to say them for some time.

“These past few weeks have been wonderful, but so… so unbearable.  What I feel for you… you don’t know.  You couldn’t possibly imagine…”

He pulled away just enough to tilt her head up, distracting her so she could focus.  Patience and kindness: these were the laws by which he existed in Norma’s world.  His life was no longer his own to control; he needed to be selfless.

“So why don’t you tell me?”

She searched his face for any trace of insincerity, and found none.  She gazed at him for several seconds, trying to find the right words.  Norma was an expert in silent communication; if this had been one of her old silent epics, there would have been an appropriately drawn-out crescendo to complement the mood.  It was more than obvious what she wanted to say, but for his sake she was struggling to verbalise it.  An unprecedented rush of affection warmed his heart, and a familiar flutter of nervousness: he was almost excited to find out how deep Norma’s feelings really were.

After a moment or two of agonising, Norma sighed, a little disappointed, before finally speaking.

“You know better than anyone that I’m not very good with words.  I’ve never had any real need for them… but I know how important they are to you, and I’m sorry I can’t say this in any better way.”  She hesitated, giving him a chance to back out.  He merely met her gaze patiently.  “You must believe me, I tried so hard not to, but I…  I’m still in love with you, Joe.  So much I can barely stand it.  Does… does that scare you?”

“Of course it does,” he admitted self-deprecatingly.  “You’re Norma Desmond!”

The brief panic that flashed in her eyes dissolved into relief, and she smiled; her hands, now warm, reached up to frame his face.  “Not with you.  Never with you.”

That was the whole point, of course: within weeks of his arrival at the mansion he had ceased to think of her as a movie star, and had subsequently begun to treat her as he would anyone else.  He had maintained a level of respect, but as their friendship grew so did his level of comfort within his environment, and so too did the easy way in which he was able to communicate with her.  It was only as his awareness of her fragility increased that their interaction began to change.  In retrospect, he probably should have seen it coming a mile away.

It was too late to change things now.  He did care for her, that much was true, and breaking her heart was out of the question.  The self-serving part of him which had attempted to manipulate the situation for his own benefit was slowly being dwarfed by his genuine feelings for Norma and her well-being.  She had laid her heart bare for him tonight; the frivolous expense of the meal was insignificant compared to that.  He also could not ignore the effort she’d made to stun him speechless, even though she would never admit to that, and was unable to see that she’d succeeded.

Whatever it was that he felt for Norma, he was struggling to define it.  He was stubbornly persistent that it was not love; surely, if it was, he would simply know without question – and the thought was vaguely terrifying, regardless.  Yet it was more than mere friendship, just it had been something stronger than guilt which had sent him back to her on New Year’s Eve and persuaded him to stay.  It was a feeling more complicated than curiosity which prevented him from running now.

“I won’t lie,” he admitted.  “It is a little scary.  But I’m not going anywhere.”

Something occurred to her then and she frowned slightly.  “The screenplay...  You said you’d stay until we had news from Paramount.”

“I did,” he agreed nonchalantly.

Norma could not quite interpret his tone.  Her hands fell away again to clasp lightly in front of her, as she took a step back and studied him curiously.

“We… we may never hear from De Mille,” she proffered carefully.  He was not convinced that it was any indication of acceptance on her part, but rather a test of his loyalty. 

“It’s a possibility.”

“Don’t play games with me, Joe.”  She gave up on trying to understand his enigmatic responses, turning away in frustration.

“I wasn’t,” he told her apologetically, deciding that a straightforward approach was needed.  “I’ll stay, Norma.  For as long as you’ll have me, anyway.”

She faced him slowly, a little cautiously, assessing his words for their truth.  Her eyes drew him in, as they so often did, her innermost feelings as clear as day.  She had spared no effort in accentuating them with a smoky and alluring effect, which he could appreciate all the more in the shadowy half-light.  She gazed at him imploringly and he was utterly lost.

“You promise you’ll stay?”

He leaned down to press a kiss to her mouth, hoping it would be enough to convince her.  She was clearly surprised, but not quite as surprised as he was to realise that he’d been wanting to indulge in the temptation for quite some time that evening.

“I promise.”

Norma’s response was to snake her arms around his neck and stretch up on her tiptoes, meeting him halfway in another, deeper kiss.  She did not hold back this time, leaving him in absolutely no doubt as to the overwhelming depth of her feelings for him.  He gave up any form of resistance and allowed himself to fall under her spell, pulling her closer, suddenly very aware of the cool silk of her dress beneath his hands, of her fingers raking through his hair, of the unexpected need to get even closer… 

It was Norma who broke the kiss, equally as conscious of the tangible change between them, removing herself from his arms to search his face for any hint that it might not be real.  He did not trust himself to speak, merely reached for her hand and began to make his way across the terrazzo towards the stairs.  Norma followed for a moment, but then resisted slightly, causing him to hesitate and turn around.

Before he could ask what was wrong, she fell against him, her head against his chest so she could hear his heartbeat; he was very aware of its changed rhythm and knew she would notice it, too.  He held her in place, enjoying the familiarity of her smaller frame fitting so closely against him, wondering absently when that had become something he missed when it wasn’t there.  She stepped back again, lifting her head to meet his gaze with shining eyes.

“I love you, Joe.”

There was a telltale flutter in his heart, a sensation he could no longer ignore.  He tried to quieten it by pressing a kiss to her forehead, but the feeling only intensified.  His next words came out before he could stop them.

“I love you, too.”

Norma kissed him again, as sweetly as the very first time, and then took the lead in the rest of the journey towards the staircase.

 —N|J—

“Wait a minute.  That’s not how it happened.”

The sound of his voice is harsh and stark, reverberating through a penetrating silence, almost as though he is trapped inside an empty and abandoned soundstage.  Everywhere is dark except for a tiny pinprick of light in the distance.  He cannot see his hands in front of him, much less feel them.

He becomes slowly aware of his own consciousness, if not his physical body, as though waking from a dream.  The events of that evening in February were real enough, but like everything else he has tried to recreate in his memory, the ending has become distorted and skewed.  His protest hangs lifelessly in the void.

“Isn’t it?”

Another voice echoes in the curious space – it is familiar, but he cannot place from where.  Despite his confusion, he responds to it.

“That isn’t how the night ended.  I mean, it is, but… I didn’t say that.”

“No, you didn’t,” clarifies the mysterious voice, “but you thought it just the same.  It’s how you wish things had gone.”

He cannot deny the allegation and his impatience grows.  “Who are you, anyway?  Clarence?”

The voice chuckles.  “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your old grandfather?”

Now he remembers – images appear in his mind’s eye of family Christmases, fishing during the summer, stories at his grandfather’s knee as a young boy.  Happier, carefree times.  The old man has been gone some fifteen years or more.

Suddenly he recalls a gunshot, a burst of pain, a heavy splash, darkness.

“Am I… am I dead?”

The voice laughs.  “Not quite yet.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t say.  Maybe it’s not your time.”

“What am I supposed to do now?”

“I think you already know…”

He does.  He’s made a terrible mess of everything.  His own self-serving needs have backfired and now the lives of everyone around him are in tatters.

Betty Schaefer, that sweet and trusting girl: he had to break her heart to save her, and now she’s tainted by that same cynicism he himself has been afflicted with for far too long.  Her optimism may not shine so brightly now, and Artie will never forgive him.

And Norma… driven to a desperate act of insanity in response to his actions.  He can only blame himself for what’s happened; he should have run when he had the change.  He should have been honest with her; he should never have allowed her to become so deeply attached.  But even now, he cannot see any way that he could have prevented it, and his own feelings are more confused than ever.  He has already seen how easily he fell for her attempts to manipulate him, conscious or otherwise, and despite his intense self-loathing he nonetheless remembers how his genuine concern for her usurped everything else.  He never believed he would be capable of selflessness, but for Norma he gave up everything.

Even as he made that decision to break free of her, he could not hate her.  No, his hatred has only ever been for himself – for allowing such an untenable situation to continue, for destroying her fragile trust by secretly dallying with Betty.  He had tried to tell Norma from the very beginning that she deserved so much better – and he wanted to be better, but he could not be anything more than himself.

Things become clearer, in retrospect.  New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, the morning of Norma’s trip to Paramount… and countless other moments too small and numerous to identify.  There have been so many times when he should have listened to his heart instead of his head.

“Now you’re getting it,” says the voice, as though it can see inside his mind.

“I am?”

“You were always a fast learner, Joseph.  I’m surprised this is taking so long.”

“What do you mean?”

“Take a look at the facts.  You’ve been lying to yourself as well as her.”

“I’ve never lied to her.”  He checks himself.  “Not about that.  I was very careful not to say anything.”

“Not saying something is practically the same as lying.  Didn’t your mother ever teach you that?”

He huffs sullenly, not wanting to acknowledge that his grandfather speaks the truth; he was always a wise man with excellent advice.  As a boy he would accept it without question; if the old man were still around he is fairly certain he would not be too grown-up for a clip around the ear.

Suddenly, a blindingly white rectangle appears before him, hovering in the darkness; he has no means of shielding his eyes and every time he turns away, it follows him.

“Let’s try something you’re a little more familiar with, shall we?”

“But—“

“Stop arguing and pay attention.”  His grandfather’s voice is stern.  “You’ve got one chance to put this whole mess right, but you need to do it on your own.  All I can do is help you get there.”

“Fine.  Show me.”

The white shape flickers to life like a movie screen, disjointed images cutting in and out – a few seconds here and there, nonsensical and random but nonetheless familiar – before they begin to organise themselves into longer sequences.  He watches himself as the hero in his own personal movie, and even though the scenes are recognisable, to view it from the outside looking in is fascinating.  He sees clearly, for perhaps the first time, how everything came to pass.

More importantly, he can no longer deny the evidence before him – the look in his own eyes as he gazes at Norma, the quiet moments where he would catch himself staring, his uncontrollable urge to protect her from harm played out in his own demeanour, those telltale moments where he felt that undeniable flutter and chose to ignore it.  As if to prove it, the picture freezes on an image of Norma, in all her finery for that trip to Paramount, and his heart climbs up into his throat.

“I remember her from her heyday,” his grandfather muses thoughtfully.  “She really was a great beauty, huh?”

“She still is,” he finally admits.  “I wish I’d told her that more often.”

“Good.  We’re finally getting somewhere.  There’s something else you could have said, too.”

If he could see his hands, they would be dragging across his face in frustration.

“How was I supposed to tell Norma when I couldn’t even admit it to myself?”  An unhelpful silence is his only response, and another notion occurs to him.  “I always thought that if you fell for someone you’d just know… like a sudden drop or a smack to the head.”

“Or a bullet to the shoulder?”

“Very funny.”

“Look, I don’t have all the answers, kid.  Sometimes it just happens when you least expect it – when you’re not even looking for it.”

The movie flickers to life again; the scene changes to their very first meeting.  Norma’s dark glasses come off and their eyes meet across the expanse of her living room.  His breath catches with more than recognition.  He recalls how curiosity turned to sympathy, and then to his own self-serving plot – but he sees now that he was already caught.

Another scene: weeks later, their hands meet over a page of her manuscript and he cannot quite forget about it.  Every touch of his hand to hers cements their connection further.  He accepts her affection without complaint, and soon begins to return it – effortlessly, thoughtlessly, without question.  These are not the actions of a man whose primary concern is himself.

He wants – needs – to make things right.

“What happens now?”

“Well, there’s two choices.  You could head towards that light over there, and this whole mess will be over with.  Or you can turn back and try to clean it up.  Your injuries aren’t fatal, but you knocked yourself unconscious and it’s very likely that you could drown.”

“I don’t know how to fix this.”

“Neither do I.  I’m sorry.  But you’re a smart boy, Joseph.  I’m sure you’ll work it out when you get there.”

The light ahead has grown closer and it looks so very appealing in the darkness: warm and inviting.  But the movie screen has paused again on a cosy image of Norma wrapped in his arms after one of her nightmares – bathed in moonlight and sleeping peacefully against his chest.  He remembers this night and the morning that followed, when he almost allowed himself to be guided by his heart.  He would give anything to hear Norma laugh again, to enjoy her carefree happiness and know that he was the one to cause it.

“I’m going back.”

“Good boy.  I’m proud of you, son.”

He turns his back on the welcoming light, and the movie screen fades away.  In its place is a plain wooden door marked “Exit”.  He turns the handle and steps through.

—N|J—

He came to with a spluttering cough, expelling a lungful of pool water, his chest burning as he tried to catch a breath.  He was freezing cold and soaked through, the chemical taste in his mouth and its associated odour filling his nostrils.  He coughed again, rolling onto his side to relieve the pressure in his chest, but his left-hand side screamed in agony at the movement and he lay back with a groan, triggering another bout of hacking which only made things worse.

Finally, he managed to inhale without further difficulty and after a few seconds of deep, calming breaths, he slowly opened his eyes, taking stock of the unfamiliar surroundings.  He was lying on an uncomfortable gurney in a small, dimly-lit room… no, not a room, the back of an ambulance, with its rear doors closed and the windows shaded.  Thankfully, the vehicle appeared to be stationary, at least for now.  From behind the blinds there was the unmistakable undulating glow of emergency lights and the distant whine of a siren.

He sat bolt upright at the realisation of what those elements could mean, his side and his right shoulder protesting as he did so.  He fingered the shoulder injury gingerly – a clean exit wound that was now bleeding anew, and what felt like a broken collarbone.  The pain in his side was from an angry-looking graze, but thankfully nothing more sinister.  Nothing that wouldn’t heal eventually, though both injuries would doubtless leave scars.

His head was pounding, and a brief exploration elicited a sharp intake of breath as his fingertips found a nasty cut in his hairline.  He vaguely remembered banging his forehead and falling into the pool before the world went black.  Hopefully he’d managed to sleep off the concussion by now.

He swung his legs off the gurney, grimacing but determined to make his body cooperate in spite of the pain.  As soon as his feet hit the floor he realised he’d likely sprained his ankle as well, presumably when he tripped.  It didn’t feel broken, so he grit his teeth and forced the injured joint to bear his weight, half-stumbling towards the ambulance’s rear doors.

He pushed them open and early morning sunlight poured into the confined space, temporarily blinding him and making his head feel worse.  As he staggered down the back step, blinking as his vision readjusted, he heard a clatter at his feet and a nearby voice raised in shock.

“Oh, holy Jesus!”

He managed to identify the culprit in the form of a terrified-looking paramedic, staring at him as though he was a ghost, with a paper cup of coffee spilled on the floor where he’d dropped it in his surprise.  Thankfully, the paramedic managed to get a grip on himself once he realised what had happened, as Joe stared blearily at the scene unfolding before him.  The driveway was packed with police cars and news vans, lights and cameras flashing wildly.  He could not quite summon the energy needed to move forwards, but in any case he was prevented from going anywhere by the medic attempting to make him sit down.

“What’s going on?” he demanded.

“Just calm down, sir,” said the other man placatingly.  “Christ, you scared me half to death.  Sit down, please – I need to take a proper look at your injuries.”

“A proper look?”

The paramedic nodded and pushed him gently into a seated position on the back step of the ambulance, then clambered inside to retrieve a medical bag. 

“What do you mean, ‘a proper look’?  What’s with the ambulance?”

The medic dabbed at his head wound with a sterile dressing.  “We found you face-down in a swimming pool with a serious head injury and a lot of blood loss,” he explained patiently.  “You weren’t breathing when they dragged you out.  There didn’t seem to be much point in treating the damage.”

Joe flinched away with a hiss of pain.

“You thought I was dead?”

“Technically, Mr…?”

“Gillis.”

“Mr Gillis, for all intents and purposes, you were dead.  I dare say you’ve had a very lucky escape.  It’s just as well Miss Desmond was a bad shot, or—“

“Oh, God.  Norma…”

Everything came flooding back to him, the muddled images in his brain piecing together with the scene on the driveway as he realised what had happened.  He got to his feet, pushing past the medic.

“Mr Gillis, please, we need to get you to a hospital.”

He ignored the other man, straining to see into the house past the sea of reporters and photographers, but it was futile.  Turning back, he grabbed the lapels of the paramedic’s uniform.

“Where is she?”

“Still inside, I think.”  Joe let go of him and made to approach the house.  “But you can’t go in there, sir!”

“Why the Hell not?”

“The police are here.  They’ve come to take her away.”

“What for?”

“She shot you.  Potentially killed you…  I’m not a lawman but I think that counts as murder in the first degree…”

Joe allowed himself a small, ironic smile.  “Well, it looks like everyone’s in for a little surprise.”

The paramedic gave up trying to convince him to get back in the ambulance, and Joe began to make his way towards the house, limping and clutching his injured shoulder.  As he passed the swimming pool, he fought off a wave of nausea at the sight of the red-tinged water.  So much blood, all of it his.  It was a minor miracle he was still standing.

He struggled to push his way through the throng crowding outside the house, most of whom barely even noticed him as he wove carefully towards the door.  A few voices raised in protest, but he ignored them and persevered until he reached a stationery, silent audience near the front, crammed into Norma’s hallway.

At first, he could not see what everyone was staring at.  Then he caught a glimpse of Max.  The dapper, ordinarily stoic older man had tears in his eyes, as he battled valiantly to regain control of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.  His respect and adoration were tangible.  He was utterly powerless to do anything to stop the inevitable actions of the waiting policemen at the bottom of the stairs, but he was doing his utmost to maintain the illusion for as long as possible, all of his old directing skills coming to the forefront as he used them to his advantage.

Following the line of Max’s gaze, Joe finally spotted Norma herself near the bottom of the staircase.  Every pair of eyes was glued to her, as indeed were several cameras.  She was wrapped in shawls and scarves, shimmering from an abundance of sequins, playing the role of Salome at last.  She was completely lost in her own world, her grip on reality tenuous at best, as she descended the final few steps with a graceful, majestic air.

The spell broke as she reached the bottom, the two policemen reaching carefully for her arms to try and lead her away.  She frowned in irritation and looked to Max for support.

“What’s going on, Mr De Mille?  Tell these two oafs to get off me.”

A flicker of deep sadness crossed Max’s features as she addressed him, but he managed to suppress it.  He looked older than he ever had before in that moment, but he held his composure long enough to reassure her.

“It’s all right, Norma.  They’re just here to take you to the other set.”

“Yeah, Miss Desmond,” said the more sympathetic-looking of the two policemen.  “Come on.  We’ll have to go in the car.  It’s a long way.”

She acquiesced with a nod, and although she pulled her arm defiantly from the grip of the other policeman, she allowed the one who’d spoken to lead to her towards the door.

Reality hit Joe at that point like a tonne of bricks, and he emerged from his frozen stupor, lurching forward and coming up against a solid wall of stubborn onlookers who were oblivious to his plight.  In desperation, he called out.

“Wait!”

Norma’s eyes flashed recognition at his voice, as too did Max’s; the older man looked as though he was about to faint, almost happy to see Joe for the first time in all his days at the mansion.  Norma sought him out and he shoved his way forwards again, the crowd finally parting to let him through.  He limped further into the hallway, focusing on Norma.

The policeman gripping her arm frowned and held up a hand, halting him where he stood.  “This is a crime scene, mister.  Now, I have no idea how you got in here, but you’re going to have to leave.”

“Oh, come on.  Don’t you recognise me?  I’m the guy they just fished out of the pool.”

The two policemen took in his bedraggled appearance, the blood staining his suit, his prominent limp and the sizeable bump that was now forming on his forehead, and came to the only logical conclusion.  They exchanged glances, stammering uselessly.  Then Max regained his senses and took action, walking up to the detective who was overseeing the proceedings and looming over him menacingly.

“I believe that there is no charge against Miss Desmond now,” he said threateningly.

The detective gulped but retained his composure.  “Well, the murder charge, sure.  But she still shot a man.”

“Mr Gillis will not be pursuing a complaint,” said Max, meeting Joe’s gaze with a knowing expression.  Joe nodded in confirmation, too weary to do anything but agree, though in truth the thought had not even crossed his mind.  He just wanted the cops and reporters to go away so he could speak to Norma; it had not even occurred to him that a crime had been committed.

The detective eyed him suspiciously, but conceded defeat.

“Fine.  I guess there’s nothing more we can do here.  Everybody clear out!”

He gave a nod to the two deputies and they stepped away from Norma and began herding out the crowd.  The reporters chatted amongst themselves animatedly, discussing how best to write up this unusual turn of events: a movie star killing someone would have made a better story than the victim disappointingly turning out not to be dead.  Joe did not even have the energy to be insulted.

The detective handed him a card as he left.  “If you change your mind…”

“I won’t,” he said, not making any move to take the card.

The man looked at him uncomprehendingly, but eventually came to the realisation that he could not convince him otherwise.  He tucked the card back into his inside pocket, tipped his hat and bade Joe farewell, shaking his head as he left the scene.

Max showed out the last of the photographers and cameramen, helping to carry their bulky equipment out of the house, then closed the door on the outside world.  In the blissful silence of the mansion, Norma seemed to slowly descend back to reality again.  She became gradually more aware of her surroundings, looking slightly dazed and confused about what had just happened.

Without the mass of other people in the room, she finally focused on Joe, straining to see him in the shadows.  Max remained by the door, watching the scene like a hawk. 

“Joe… is that you?”

He stepped into the light so that she could see him better. 

“Yes.  I’ve come back.”

There was the smallest flicker of remembrance.  “Yes, you… you left.  I remember now.  Where did you go?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“But you’re back now?”

She knew there was something strange about that, something that wasn’t quite right, but it was very slightly beyond her grasp.  Joe made his way over to her carefully, ignoring the ache in his ankle and trying not to limp or draw attention to his injured shoulder, as despite his appearance she did not yet appear to have noticed anything amiss.  He focused all of his energy into rising above the pain and remaining upright.  Max’s steely gaze softened in sympathy for his plight, but he could not do anything to assist.

Joe rose to his full height, or tried to at the very least, his side stinging.  The pain was making him nauseous, but he fought down the sensation, focusing on Norma.  She was still struggling to grasp onto a rapidly diminishing memory, and he had no desire whatsoever to bring it flooding back to her.  He lifted his good arm, reaching for her hand.

“Yes, Norma.  I’m back now.”

His touch had been intentional, hoping that the familiarity of it would be enough to break through her haze, and thankfully it had worked in bringing her back to him.  The cloudiness left her expression, the memory finally dissipating and escaping her completely, and he knew that she did not remember anything of the past few hours.  He wondered idly where the gun was; perhaps the police had taken it with them.

He let his hand fall away again.  Norma moved closer, raising her hands to frame his face, her thumbs caressing his cheeks as she searched his gaze.  He wanted so desperately to apologise and beg forgiveness, but she no longer remembered that he had anything to be sorry for.  Nonetheless, his face betrayed him; on some level she must have understood, because her own expression changed in response, and when she spoke again it was in a soft and undemanding tone.

“Welcome home, Joe…”

The relief was indescribable in that moment, and he was almost euphoric for a few seconds.  Then the adrenaline finally wore off.  His legs buckled and he staggered forwards, reaching instinctively for Norma to stop himself from falling to the floor.  She was clearly startled, but managed to support him long enough for Max to rush over and take the brunt of his weight.  Max lifted Joe’s right arm to hold him upright, and he cursed as white-hot pain burst through his shoulder.  Between the two of them, they managed to get him to the sofa and sit him down.

Norma sat beside him and assessed his appearance for the first time, her face growing paler as she took in the extent of his various injuries.

“Darling, what happened?  You’re soaked through.  You’re bleeding.

He began to shiver, going into shock.  Norma was already checking for fever, the back of her hand pressed to his forehead.  In his rapidly deteriorating state, he knew that the truth was not an option, and his mind raced to come up with an answer.

“Well, it’s pretty silly.  I fell in the pool.  Tripped over a loose slab and cracked my head open.”

Norma removed one of the many shawls that had made up her Salome costume and wrapped it around his shoulders.

“Don’t lie to me, Joe.  I can see you’ve been shot.”  She cast her gaze towards Max.  “Call the doctor – tell him it’s an emergency.”

Max nodded and headed towards the telephone.  Norma returned her attention to Joe, who was struggling to remain conscious in a bid to reassure her.

“You didn’t let me finish.  I did fall in the pool, right after… right after those guys who wanted my car started waving a gun at me.  Lucky for me, they were both a bad shot.  I guess they thought they’d finished me off…”

He did not hear Norma’s response, as his eyes closed of their own volition and he succumbed to exhausted unconsciousness.

—N|J—

Joe finally resurfaced a few hours later, feeling numb and woozy from painkillers, warm and dry in clean pyjamas, and tucked safely in his own bed, propped up against the pillows.  He could hear distant voices downstairs: Norma and an unfamiliar male who he assumed must have been the doctor.  His torso had been bandaged and his arm was in a sling; there was a slight tugging sensation on his forehead and he realised the cut had been sutured.  His leg was elevated on another pillow but otherwise untreated, confirming his assumption that it was nothing more serious than a sprain.

He became suddenly aware of being watched.  He shook some of the woolliness from his head and cast his gaze about the room, eventually noticing Max standing in the open doorway, practically filling the space.  Joe rubbed the drowsiness from his eyes and when he opened them again, Max had come into the room; he left the door ajar but that was not particularly reassuring.

“Max?”

For several seconds he said nothing, and it almost looked as though he was about to leave; then he changed his mind.

“Do you love her, Mr Gillis?”

Joe was taken aback, to say the least, by Max’s direct question.  He was very slow to process it, still muzzy from whatever the doctor had given him, and in his hesitation Max did not wait for a response.

“I only ask because… because I still love her.  I always have, and I always will.  Her happiness is the only thing of any importance to me.  I confess, it is beyond me as to how… but you were able to bring her happiness, and if you are to stay here again…”  He hesitated, reining in his obvious discomfort at a situation he had not been agreeable to in the first place.  “That is why I need to know.  Do you love her?”

Joe had neither the energy nor the inclination to lie, but he picked his words carefully nonetheless, not wanting to give Max any opportunity to catch him out.

“I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but the truth is… I don’t know.  I might not have shown it recently, but I do still care about her…  Maybe I… maybe I do love her – maybe I have done all along and just didn’t want to acknowledge it.”  Max raised an eyebrow sceptically, but allowed him to continue.  “She’s done so much for me, and I can never repay her – not in cash, and not in any meaningful way.  Norma deserves better than this, but… but I can only be who I am, Max, and I know that hasn’t been good enough.”

He expected a response to that, but Max said nothing, neither confirming nor denying his assumption.

“Give me time,” he implored.  “Please… that’s all I ask.  Time to heal, and to learn how to love her the way she deserves.”

Max stared levelly at him, assessing his answer for any falsities.  Eventually he gave a nod, seeming satisfied, but his tone held a menacing undercurrent nonetheless.

“Very well… but know this, Mr Gillis.  If you hurt her again, I will personally see to it that it’s the last thing you ever do.”

With that, he disappeared out of the door.  Joe’s head reeled, wondering what had just happened.  Did Max just threaten him?  That seemed wholly unfair given the circumstances.  He’d forgotten that it was never just about convincing Norma of his intentions, but Max as well – and he was a lot harder to win over.

Soon enough, the reason for his sudden departure became apparent, the front door closing downstairs as the doctor was seen out.  A few moments later, Norma appeared in the doorway.  She had freshened up from earlier, her Salome trappings no longer evident as she had changed into one of her comfortable lounge suits.  She hesitated at the threshold.

“May I come in, Joe?”

“You don’t need to ask,” he told her, and she gave a relieved smile and entered, closing the door behind her.

“How are you feeling?”

“A little fuzzy, but otherwise okay,” he said.  “The doctor did a great job.”

“He’s an old friend of mine,” she explained.  “I’d trust him with my life.”

Joe moved his slung arm experimentally.  “Any idea when I can take this thing off?”

“He’ll be back in a week or so to check on you.  Until then, lots of rest, take two of these” – she handed him a bottle of painkillers – “whenever you need them, and thirty minutes of exercise a day for your sprained ankle, once you’re feeling well enough.”

He gave a nod of acknowledgement, but an awkward silence quickly descended, Norma hovering by the bed and looking as though she did not know what do with herself.  Joe indicated with a gesture of his head for her to join him, and her gratitude was tangible as she clambered onto the bed beside him.  She was careful not to exacerbate any of his injuries, but sank against him with obvious relief as he wrapped his free arm around her shoulders.

For a moment they sat together in amiable stillness, Norma tangling her fingers with his.  There was clearly something on her mind, but he did not push her.  Eventually, she spoke.

“Joe, who… who were all those people earlier?  I know something must have happened, but I… I can’t remember.”

Joe thought carefully over how best to explain away the presence of the media bloodhounds.  He suspected that she did not recall much from her half-lucid state on his arrival: their cryptic exchange about him leaving, in particular.  A crowd of people in her house was more unusual, so he was not surprised she could recall that detail, but her temporary detachment from reality was completely forgotten, along with most of the events of the previous evening.  He and Max would need to be very careful over the next few days to keep any incriminating news headlines out of Norma’s reach.

Perhaps she would remember the actual events, at some point; he would deal with that when the time came, but for now he would go along with whatever conclusions she drew and treat them as truth.  In the meantime, he came up with something he hoped sounded convincing.

“It was a news crew… reporters…  Someone at Paramount must have let slip about Salome.  They were desperate for a story from you.  I mean, it’s not every day that a great star makes a return.  But Max and I, we… we got rid of them.”

“You did?”

“Well, we tried to, but they got a little rowdy, so we had to call the police.  But before they got here, those guys from the finance company managed to track me down – would you believe it?  By the time the police arrived the reporters had something else to get excited about.”

“Please don’t speak so lightly of it, Joe,” she chastised him.  “You were shot.  You could have been killed.”

“But the important thing is that I wasn’t,” he reassured her.  “I’m still here.  And I won’t be going anywhere.”  He assessed his current position self-deprecatingly.  “Not for a while, anyway.”

A yawn escaped before he could stop it.  He had no idea of the time, but the sky was still light outside his room so it could not have been any later than the afternoon.  Nevertheless, he was exhausted; a few hours of half-concussed unconsciousness did not equate to decent sleep.

“Are you tired, darling?”

“A little.  It’s been a long day.”

“I’ll let you get some sleep.”

He could sense her reluctance as she left the bed, and he reached unthinkingly for her hand to stop her.  She stared at their joined hands, and then at him, with a curious expression.

“You don’t have to go,” he said.  “In fact, I… I’d like it if you stayed.”

Norma hesitated for a second, still uncertain, then gave a nod.  She released his hand only so she could draw the curtains against the daylight, then returned to the bed and cautiously slid under the covers beside him.  She helped to rearrange the pillows so he could lie more comfortably, and when he was settled she turned to face him, her hand trailing gently across his midriff.  He jumped and suppressed a laugh, catching her hand in his.

“Hey, don’t start that again.  I’m far too tired.”

For a moment she looked puzzled, then recalled the last time he’d jerked away from her touch in such a manner, and the reason why.  It was obvious she remembered that morning as clearly as he did.  She smiled apologetically and changed tactic, brushing his hair away from his forehead and examining the cut with grim fascination.  There was doubtless a colourful bruise to go with it by now.

He rolled onto his left side, as best he could, wincing slightly as his shoulder twinged.  Norma’s hand moved to his cheek, her gaze locking with his.  He was staggered, once again, by the intensity of the look in her eyes: love so deep he could easily drown.  He still felt wholly unworthy of it, still wracked with guilt that he could not return it or express himself as effectively.  Nonetheless, his heart gave a familiar, telltale flutter; for the first time, he allowed it to take hold, the sensation spreading like liquid warmth in his chest and settling agreeably as Norma finally spoke.

“I love you so much, Joe.  I don’t know what I would do if I lost you.”

He did not have the energy to try and form words, so he leaned forward to kiss her instead: a silent reassurance if not quite a reciprocation.  It was enough, for now; when she pulled back some of the tempest had calmed in her expression.

His eyes felt heavy and he gave in to the desperate urge to close them, feeling himself start to lapse into sleep.  He felt Norma watching him, sensing that she was about to speak before he was fully dragged under.

“Joe…?”  He murmured a reply and she took that as a cue to continue.  “Do you…”

She did not finish the question.  With a monumental effort, he roused himself enough to prompt: “Do I what?”

“You… you do love me, don’t you, Joe?”

People seemed to enjoy asking him that question today; first Max, now Norma.  It was a question he’d asked himself on far too many occasions, only to dismiss it.  At least this time there was no threatening undertone.  Norma sounded genuinely curious, but he knew it was a front: that there was much more to it than that.  Nodding absently, too exhausted to argue, he managed to formulate a reply before unconsciousness finally claimed him:

“Of course I love you, Norma.”

Whatever response she might have given went unheard as Joe descended into a somewhat restless, medication-induced sleep.

He dozed fitfully for most of the day, lapsing in and out of consciousness and only partially aware of his surroundings and the occasional low-level activity within the house.  Norma stayed with him the entire time, refusing to leave his side despite Max’s best efforts at coercing her back downstairs.  Joe half-surfaced briefly to hear her whispering in an argumentative tone with the older man, and his resigned acquiescence as he vacated the room again.

Hours later, Joe awoke somewhat more fully and realised night had fallen.  Norma was still beside him, sleeping peacefully.  A brief glance at his alarm clock informed him it was just gone two o’clock.  It had become something of a habit to wake automatically at that time, a minute or so before Norma would call out for him in the middle of a nightmare.  Tonight, however, her dreams did not appear to be troubling her.

As he shifted slightly, he realised what had actually woken him up: the painkillers had worn off.  Moving quietly, he sought out the pill bottle and a glass of water and quickly took another dose, trying not to disturb Norma.  Thankfully, whatever the doctor had prescribed seemed to work efficiently, the pain dwindling into a comforting numbness, a sensation of drowsiness overcoming him.

A flash of memory came back to him mere moments before he nodded off, suddenly jolting him into alertness again: Norma coercing an admission out of him only hours before.  He felt a sudden rush of embarrassed surprise at how easily it had happened; he could blame the drugs, or the concussion, but deep down he knew it was the truth.  He could not even bring himself to feel affronted that Norma had taken advantage of his somewhat vulnerable state, and in any case he was certain she had not done it on purpose.

It would have happened at some point, anyhow: it was an obvious inevitability, and he knew that lucidity would only have made things awkward.  Nonetheless, he knew it would not change anything.  Norma had been seeking reassurance, nothing more; she would not treat it as any kind of heartfelt confession on his part.  By the morning she might even have forgotten about it.

Maybe that was for the best.  Maybe one day he could surprise her by making a great big scene about it: a grand romantic epic like one of her old movies, so she was in absolutely no doubt.  Before that, he needed time to rebuild their foundations, to ensure that Norma’s trust in him was intact, and slowly unravel the catastrophe he had unintentionally orchestrated.  And if he fell in love with her a little more along the way, that would only make things easier.

His fate had been sealed from the moment he drove his limping car into her driveway, and despite all of his best efforts to change the course of things, he had ended up back here regardless: at Norma’s mansion, by her side, and in her heart.

For the first time, he could honestly say that was exactly where he wanted to be. 

- fin -