December 24th, 1947
Norma's loud and piercing voice rang through the mansion at 10086 Sunset Boulevard. In less than five seconds it sounded again, a slightly anxious tone in it.
The butler hurried into the hall and made for the stairs, only to stop mid-step when his Madame appeared on the landing above him. Max von Mayerling noticed within a moment that the woman had been in a hurry to apply her ever so thick layer of make-up. Her hair was still a mess from the restless night before, and she had not made the effort to put on one of her luxurious gowns. There she stood, in her nightdress and silver dressing gown, eyes surrounded by a dark eyeshadow and staring wide, a few red curls dangling on her pale forehead, and a pair of blood red lips pressed together firmly—and Max was, for the thousandth time, convinced that she was the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world.
"Max," Norma said, having fixed her servant with a superior look, "where are my cigarettes? I can't have run out, can I?" Her voice had definitely never been the most melodious or angelic one, but it demanded respect all the same.
"I'm afraid you have," replied Max calmly. "The next shipment should be arriving next week." He watched as Norma's eyes flashed with quickly changing emotions—first there was anger, then sadness, annoyance, and finally determination—all this in mere two seconds.
"Call the tobacco shop," she ordered, her head held a little higher than before. "Get me some of my cigarettes right away." A second's time, and she repeated her order, "Now!"
Max didn't even wince at her raised voice. She had become more and more unstable as the years had passed by, and now Max had to keep a close eye on her almost every move. He didn't mind her bossing him around—after all, she was his employer—he would gladly do anything to make the woman happy.
"The shop is not open today, Madame," said Max in return, ready for another restless outburst from the actress.
"How come?" asked Norma in confusion, the look in her eyes indicating she was considering the facts known to her feverishly. "You told me yesterday that it was Tuesday, so it must be Wednesday today. They've always worked on Wednesdays, haven't they?" she said, triumphant in her wisdom.
Max shook his head ever so slightly, reminded that Norma's life didn't include keeping track of the calendar these days. "It's the holidays, Madame," he explained patiently. "No one is working today." Had he not been so devoted to his job, he might have thought about taking a small break himself today, but as it was, he had responsibilities far more important than worrying about his work schedule.
"Holidays?" Norma mused, frowning in thought. Max saw the little dimple between her eyebrows that only appeared when Norma was trying very hard to concentrate on something. "What holidays are they, Max? I can't remember," she asked.
"It's Christmas, Madame," Max answered, inwardly fighting the urge to wish her a merry Christmas and not refer to her as "Madame" but rather "Norma", like he had in the past—one that seemed to be long forgotten by the woman.
The actress averted her gaze from her servant, staring instead into the distance—through the walls of the mansion and into some thought that Max could never capture in this world. "Christmas," she muttered. In her eyes Max could see a longing so utterly different from the one she felt when her thoughts drifted back to her career, and yet not entirely unseen.
Norma didn't acknowledge Max any more, turning around on the landing and heading back to her room. Max had a strong inclination to follow her to see if she was all right, but decided against it halfway up the stairs. Norma had been lost in her own world when she had left the landing, she'd be safe there.
Heading downstairs again to continue his dusting, Max wondered what sort of memories he had awoken in the actress. They hadn't celebrated or even acknowledged Christmas in over a decade—New Year had always been more important to Norma, the firm believer in fate and new chances. But they had celebrated Christmas when they had been married. It seemed so long ago since they had been husband and wife, and Max often wondered if Norma even remembered it.
There were times when Norma would have Max sitting beside herself while she was going through her old albums or was watching one of her—or occasionally their—pictures. She had even curled up against him a few times over the years, completely oblivious to the feelings her behaviour was arousing in her servant. And then there were times when she would order him around haughtily, make acid comments or ignore him entirely.
It was raining again, Max noticed when he cleaned the windowsill. Back in Europe they had had snow when he was young, and he had seen some in Los Angeles in 1932. Max remembered the day well—or rather he remembered Norma's large crimson raincoat and the beautiful snow covering her red hair, her breathing on her small white hands to keep them warm, and the snowball that mysteriously hit Max's chest. Nothing about this dark cloud-covered sky and dull downpour today was indicating the snow storm he would see in only a couple of weeks.
It wasn't until afternoon that Max saw Norma again. The house was always so quiet, and today even the organ was silent. Norma came into view, hovering in the living room doorway, her head tilted to the side just a little and her eyes scanning the room with curiosity and unnatural shyness. She was in no hurry to move, so Max took the moment to take in her stunning appearance.
The actress had styled her hair into elegant curls and they framed her face in a perfect red coiffure, complete with a priceless and definitely heavy diamond headpiece. She was wearing a dark moss green gown that hugged her figure beautifully, the sleeves reaching her elbows, and the low décolleté adorned with tiny diamonds. She had changed her worn out face for a youthful and beauteous one, the dark brown eyeshadow and wine red lips contrasting with her fair skin. The make-up added the last touch to the illusion—Norma looked just like she had twenty years ago.
"Can you help me?" Norma asked gently, and Max managed to tear his look from the woman's captivating eyes. He nodded his head promptly and strode across the room, wondering what he was supposed to do. And then he noticed what the actress was holding in her hands ever so carefully. It was one of Norma's grand necklaces, made out of glorious diamonds and white gold. Max recognized it immediately.
They didn't exchange another word as Max took the piece from Norma's hands and walked around her to hang it around her neck. It took Max a full minute to succeed in fastening the necklace because of his gloves, but he was determined not to take them off. Had he not been standing behind the actress, he would have seen the girlish look of anticipation and excitement on Norma's face.
"It's the one you got me for Christmas, isn't it?" she said when Max had finished and stood back. Max noticed that she was speaking in a much softer tone than usually, less bossy and proud.
"Indeed, Madame, it is," he replied. He had gotten Norma this priceless necklace back when they had still been husband and wife—a time he could not get out of his head, looking at the youthful Norma in front of him.
Norma whisked around to face Max, a slightly uncertain smile on her face. She hesitated a moment before looking up into Max's eyes, and took both of his hands in hers. "I'm sorry, Max," she said in a small voice. "I'm afraid I didn't get you a present this year." She sounded so utterly ashamed and remorseful that it shocked Max to no end.
It hadn't occurred to Norma in years to as much as wish him a merry Christmas, not to mention see to a gift for him. And he didn't really wish for anything from Norma—their life was as good as it was going to get and he knew it. As for the tangible things, Norma's fortune didn't leave him a chance to complain about anything.
Max decided to dismiss the actress's words as part of her ever-drifting train of thought. "It's alright, Madame," he said, unable to resist giving Norma's hands a little squeeze of support. "It doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters!" Norma shot back passionately, her firm belief in the importance of her mistake visible in her eyes. She freed one of her hands and Max was ready to let go of the other, but she let it stay in his grasp. Norma touched her fingertips to Max's cheek ever so gently, never once tearing her eyes from his.
It never ceased to amaze Max how many feelings the woman could reveal without a single word or even a twitch of a muscle. Norma's eyes were an eternal wonder. And at the moment those eyes were expressing in the clearest way possible feelings that Max hadn't dared to hope the actress still had for him.
It might have been Norma's experience in the business—one that had taught her not to linger too long on a scene—that made her clasp his hands again and avert her eyes for a second—or it might as well have been a moment of disturbing self-awareness. "Come, darling!" she said as she began to pull Max towards a settee nearly in the middle of the room. "Let's sit here."
It must have been at least twenty years since Norma had called him that—at least consciously. Max wondered for a moment if Norma could be in one of her moods again, as they had grown rather frequent lately. But she looked so sane and sure. Perhaps she did remember their time together—more than Max gave her credit for.
Max obeyed without a word, joining Norma on the settee, making sure to keep a dignified distance between the two of them. But as soon as Max had settled down, Norma noticed his move and edged closer. She turned to look at the man again and smiled the most trusting and loving smile that make-up-covered beautiful face could manage. Electric lights glistened in her eyes.
Max silently thanked the God that Norma's fall from fame hadn't affected her skills of saying anything with a single look. At that moment she told him so much more than he could have ever dared to hope for. She still trusted him more than anyone. She still wanted to share her life with him. Norma Desmond, the woman Max had met and fallen in love with more than thirty years ago, who had given him the brush and had later allowed him back in her life as a servant, the greatest star of all, still loved him. She was still his.
This time she didn't break the precious moment so soon. Max had never been a successful actor but he hoped that Norma would somehow see in his eyes how much he also loved her. And by God he did love her! So infinitely and unconditionally that it would have astounded any other man. So tenderly and dearly that he sometimes almost failed to hold himself back from enveloping her in his arms and telling her just how soundly she was holding his life together. So desperately that a life without her would simply be unbearable.
Finally, Norma tore her eyes away from Max's, and looked around the room, studying it as if she hadn't seen it before. "Why haven't we decorated the house this year?" she asked without looking back at the man beside her. "It doesn't look like Christmas in here." With that she gracefully stood from the settee and took a few steps away, towards the centre of the room. Max watched silently as she began to gesture grandly to express her train of thought before voicing it.
"There should be decorations all around!" she announced. "And candles!" She waved at the empty mantelpiece. "And a large tree in the middle of the room!" She brought her hands up to imitate a Christmas tree. "And mistletoe!" She smiled at Max and sprang in his direction, moving to sit on the floor next to the settee that the man was still occupying.
"Oh, Max! Do you remember?" she asked excitedly, grabbing his hands again. "Do you remember our Christmases?" She rested her head against Max's knee and gazed up at him expectantly. Her expression was so angelically pure and innocent that Max decided that for just this once he wouldn't even try to restrain himself.
"How could I ever forget?" he replied as he leaned closer to Norma, and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. Norma watched him with glistening eyes as he sat up again.
Max was surprised at how clear and conscious the look in her eyes was. It was as if she was completely aware of what had become of their lives in the last seventeen years. She had always given Max every reason to believe that she had no recollection of the world Max was still living in—the one where Norma had once been madly in love with him and where the talkies had taken over their new ways to dream.
"Why can't everything just be as it was before?" Norma breathed almost inaudibly.
Her head turned away once more and Max, keeping his eyes on her face, could feel her hand searching for his on the settee. When he took the actress's hand, Norma tightened her grip as if he were a lifeline. In many ways he was. Max tried unsuccessfully not to feel too good about the way his Madame depended on him. He was irreplaceable to her, he knew that, and yet there was a sadness to this. Norma had once been so independent and full of life, and although today she was more that than she had been in the last twenty years, time had changed her all too much.
"I used to love the smell of gingerbread in the air," Norma mused. In spite of her strong grip on Max's hand, her tone was gentle, as if she didn't realize how she was holding on to the man. "And the carolling!" She turned to once again look up at Max excitedly. "I used to love hearing you sing," she confided to Max with a trusting smile.
"How did it go?" She had her concentrated face on, whilst still gazing up at Max in the most amiable manner. After a while her expression changed, indicating she had solved whatever question she had been pondering. "Silent night, holy night," she chanted carefully and flashed a smile at her butler. "That was one of your favourites, wasn't it?"
A moment of silence followed, during which Max managed to nod his head once. It was incredible how Norma could still surprise him after all this time. She never could carry a tune and, not caring much for words, she didn't think much of singing either. Yet Max's singing, which the man had almost forgotten about himself, had remained in the actress's memory of a perfect Christmas. And again it gave Max a satisfying warm feeling of importance.
Max would later scold himself for behaving so familiarly, but the thought that this would not be proper for a butler didn't even cross his mind as he gently took Norma by the arms and guided her up from the floor and to sit next to him on the settee again. "All is calm, all is bright," he sang the words that had been lost to him for far too long.
Max failed to hide his surprised expression as Norma snuggled close to him, resting her head against his chest. He also failed to notice his arm snaking around the actress's body to hold her close. Norma's sweet scent made him slightly dizzy, and an intense feeling of warmth crept into Max's heart from holding the woman again. She'd always been smaller than him and extremely beautiful, but Max had forgotten the softness of her skin, the way it felt to hold her petite figure in his arms, and the shivering excitement her touch caused him.
"Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child," Max continued in a soft tone, his breath making Norma's hair move just a little. He felt her relax against him, and wondered if she'd been anxious to meet his reaction to her sudden closeness. "Holy Infant so tender and mild."
Max didn't need to check the mirror in the opposite wall to know that Norma had her eyes closed—her eyes that were her only weapon and her shield in this world, her only true way of expressing herself. She didn't need protection from the world now that Max was holding her. She was safe.
"Sleep in heavenly peace." Max's voice was quiet enough for him to hear Norma's soft breathing. The silence on her part felt so holy and special to Max for he knew Norma only ever to be so quiet when she was musing on her past glory. Now, however, his presence had caused her silence, and the delightful feeling was only enhanced by Norma's hand searching for Max's again.
She squeezed his hand affectionately, and the words escaped her lips in a soft but certain whisper, "Oh, how I love you!"
For the last two decades Max had been certain he'd never hear her say these words again, least of all to him. Shocked to no end by the Norma's serenity and clear sanity, Max almost didn't recognize the long-forgotten feeling that seized his heart—happiness.
In his astounded state, Max paused for thrice as long as he had meant to, but Norma didn't seem to mind. She lay still against him, holding his hand in her loving grip, and making not a sound. "Sleep in heavenly peace." The softest words ever written were sang, and Max felt content to just sit there for a few minutes, with the love of his life in his arms and a long lost happiness restored in him.
He knew Norma had fallen asleep by the way her weight transmitted to him. It wasn't unusual of her to doze off in the middle of the day these days, just as it wasn't uncommon of Max to find her wandering the house in the middle of the night. The situation at hand, however, was completely out of the ordinary. Not because Max would pick her up and take her to her room in a moment, which he had done occasionally, but because the last time Norma had fallen asleep on him had been back when they had been married—when they had been in love and happy. Max hadn't felt that way ever since.
Climbing up the staircase to Norma's bedroom, Max looked down at the peaceful woman in his arms. Norma's ageless beautiful face held a soft smile, one she hadn't worn for the longest of times. She was happy as well.
Max knew that in the morning Norma wouldn't remember today. She'd be back to her usual self again, she'd have forgotten who Max was. She would order him around and behave like the great movie star that she was, with no courtesy towards anyone but herself. Max wouldn't mind. This afternoon had been the best Christmas present Norma could have given him. Max would remember it until the end of their days.