The day after arriving in Hollywood (yes, we are going back to Norma and Stanley's second day in Hollywood) Norma just lay in bed and tried to see how many sounds she could hear. The first, and loveliest sound was the soft breathing of her beloved Stanley next to her, his callipygian form stretched out before her. She wondered if she should cuddle up to him but thought better of it. Leave the poor man alone. He had more than adequately performed his nuptial duties the night before. Their lovemaking had been so vigourous that the bed had threatened to collapse so they'd migrated to the carpeted floor with the bed quilt beneath them.
She closed her eyes and returned to her game. She could hear the in and out of her own breathing as well as the sounds of birdsong through the hotel window. Stanley had leapt up in the middle of their lovemaking the night before to open the window, his cock bobbing like some mechanical toy, exclaiming : 'I can't breathe in here!', before returning to her and her needs. Just when she thought he couldn't think of another way to pleasure her he would come up with something surprising, as though his intelligence and imagination, combined with his natural athleticism, created the possibility of infinite variations on a theme. Of course, it was his playfulness that made it all possible. That, in a way, made her love for him possible. Trying to imagine Stanley without his playfulness was like trying to imagine an aeroplane without propellers. His intimidating personality, his size, his dangerous intelligence would have been unbearable without his charm and pixie playfulness. She was sure she would never have fallen in love him as deeply and completely if he hadn't made her laugh so much on their first date.
Which was another lifetime ago. The birds continued their cheeping and squeaking. A motor car engine popped and roared and she could imagine the owner cranking it then wiping his hands. Down the hallway a door closed. The sound of footsteps on carpet. She opened her eyes very slowly but when she saw the ceiling and the lamp hanging so hopelessly she closed them again and rolled over.
When she awoke the tired and overstretched feeling had left her. She was surprised at how well rested she felt, as though she had slept for a week; as though she had been on a holiday. The day sounded more fully formed and the light on the ceiling several shades lighter.
She was now alone in the bed and could hear the sound of water running in the bathroom. Untethered from her normal morning, from her life and routine in New York, she felt like she was floating, as though carried by the wind or a river. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, no, just new and unexpected. She thought of the way snow fell, white and powdered, all the way down to the street. So lovely to look at from the warmth of the apartment, with the smell of her mother's cooking filling every space and the fire blazing and...oh, no, not homesickness! No, it's just the way it is. You are inside and the snow looks like a picture but imagine tramping through it with a heavy school satchel. Six city blocks is a long way for a little kid and all the slipping and sliding and all those piles of snow.
Here she was in the new world, in her new life with her freshly minted marriage an untested thing, no? And this new town on the edge of a continent, this hotel and in the bathroom her husband is washing and shaving. The shower stopped. Oh! I hope he opens the door. If he opens the door he really loves me. 'Oh, don't be silly, Norma, dear,' she heard her Mother say, chuckling and rearranging her knitting on her lap.
Muffled sounds. Voices. Car engines. Birdsong. A truck turning. And then the click of the doorknob and the door opening and there was her husband standing in the doorway, hair slicked back, still wet from the shower, his chest seal wet. He was lathering soap and applying it with his shaving brush to his chiselled features. 'What a catch,' she thought. What a gorgeous looking man.
'Good morning, beautiful,' he said, smiling.
'Oh, aren't you coming back to bed?'
''Fraid not, my love. The day calls. You should sleep some more and we'll all meet for lunch.'
'Oh no. Lovely thought but I want to get started with my new life. The day calls me too , you know.'
'Would you like to come with me?'
'Oh, can I? I would love that.'
'We'll be looking at some land that Mack says would be perfect. Then we'll be checking our current set up and discussing finances. That should take the whole morning. Then lunch. I need to spend time in the office.'
He turned and walked back into the bathroom. She pushed back the sheets, stood and looked out the window. They were two floors up. To her right she could see the Hollywood Hills. The sky was the same blue as the day before and the breeze carried the scent of desert scrub and wildflowers, as it had last night when he kissed her and told her he loved more and more everyday. After making love, they had held each other and drifted off to sleep.
She let her nightie drop to the floor and surveyed herself in the wardrobe mirror, turning so she could see her profile. She let herself be carried away by her own gorgeousness and her physical perfection then thought, 'Enough of this silliness! Time to wash and dress, do your make up and hair, girl!' She knew exactly what she was going to wear on her first day in Hollywood, which she congratulated herself on. Smart girl. Book smart and street smart. Stanley was a lucky man, wasn't he?
'Yes, yes, Norma, dear, I think we all agree with you on that.'
'Oh, Mother! Don't tease! Do I tease you?'
'When don't you tease me, Norma, dear?'
Then she was under the shower and her husband was shaving, near enough to touch, and if she had wanted to she could have pulled off his towel and taken his cock in her mouth. Oh! For the second time in twenty four hours she felt absolutely, thoroughly and deliquently modern!
Her father and mother came to visit. On their first night Norma cooked dinner and after eating her cherry pie they sat in the front room and talked about her father's early days touring the country in vaudeville. He then stood up and performed one of the skits and everyone laughed and clapped their hands.
The lamps glowed and any disappointments or regrets were forgotten. From the canyon, really not all that far away, came the sound of a coyote howling. Soon they were all too tired to keep their eyes open anymore, especially her mother, so after using the bathroom and saying goodnight they all retired for the night and the house was silent again.
Norma awoke just as light was giving shape to the objects in the room. She carefully pushed back the cover, took her dressing gown from the end of the bed, found her slippers and stood up. The hands of the clock showed just past 5am. She looked across at Stanley who lay there fast asleep. She was sure he could sleep through an earthquake. She turned the doorhandle, opening the door slowly to avoid the creak.
The house was quiet and Norma was glad to have it all to herself. She expected her mother to be up after 6am so until then the house and all its silence were hers. In the kitchen she filled the kettle with water and placed it on the stove. Once she had her cup of coffee she opened the back door and stepped out onto the back porch and into the morning. There was a chill in the air and light touched the edges of the landscape. If you walked straight ahead from here you would be in the San Fernando Valley, in the vast orange groves, and the San Bernardino Mountains would be ahead of you.
But the thought of that held little interest to her. What she was preoccupied with was her own little patch and her thoughts. If she was asked to describe this time, to remember it and describe it (as though anyone would be interested!), what would she say? What could she say? Oh dear. What should she say. The modals, as always, said it all. Let's start with the word that popped into her head: 'Myself'. Where had she read that sentence, 'Myself, my favourite subject.' ? Then her brain moved onto the books that had changed her. When the penny had dropped and a section of her brain had expanded.
Let's stay on the first project: to describe this time. No one had ever lived this moment. In all the history of humankind no one had stood where she was standing now, on the edge of something. Like a glass filling, drop by drop. She had always thought words should be allowed to spill out and combine at random. Perhaps it was the Irish in her but she loved it when words and sentences tumbled out like a great waterfall tumbling off a cliff, hitting the surface, sending spray flying. Sometimes she would find herself thinking so fast that the mechanics of her brain couldn't keep up. So here she was starting again. All over again. The backyard, with its unkempt lawn and scraggly trees and bushes, sat there looking heartbreakingly lovely. She tried to imagine its different incarnations, when it was, say, the garden of a rural homestead rather than hemmed in, as it was now, by development. The lives that had walked up and down that rough garden path.
She felt happy, of that she was certain. She loved Stanley and felt lifted when he stepped into a room. Her love for him seemed to have no limit and if it did she would take time and see if she could talk to him. If she felt frightened or worried she knew she could talk to him and he would reassure her. As long as she could find out what was going on inside of herself and then find the words, then find the courage to tell him, a weight would be lifted from her shoulders and she would hug him and her gratitude for his solid goodness would be bigger and faster flowing than the mighty Mississippi. It was a perilous thing, this life. I mean, we all know the stories. A pot of boiling water. A curious hand. A baby carried full term, a bonny wee baby. Pink cheeks, smiling, giggling, laughing, touching, sweet smelling baby, snatched away. She knew one thing, if she knew anything she knew this: she could not survive the death of a child.
The sun burnished the sky. The pale blue of morning was coming. Soon the day would be here and this moment would be over, past perfect, and still she hadn't managed to begin to capture even one word for posterity. But still she had a chance, so she dived in. She lifted her arms, not literally but in her mind and dived in and let the words tumble. And although she didn't write them they were there. Her eyes saw the porch rail and the way the paint was peeling and the way the ligh was changing. She held her cup and looked at the mark her lipstick left on the rim of the cup and at the liquid in the bottom of the cup. A small bird flew across the scene and in the corner of the property an old chicken coop sat empty. The path to the clothesline was an arrangement of stones and cement and tufts of grass grew in and around it. Bird song came from every direction and the house sat behind her, quiet. The lawn was wet with dew. The sun would soon be up. Stanley would soon be up. Her father and mother would soon be up. This was her life and this was a perfect moment.
Now. Where were we? Desmond was sitting on the side of his bed in the pool house. Outside he could hear the sprinkler splut-slutting. It had been over three months since his audition and not a whisper from the studio. He had settled comfortably into his new life as Norma's live-in pool boy and lover. She was fine woman and very lively in bed. They laughed a lot and she would take none of his shit but was also tolerant and understanding of his proclivities. All in all a perfect set up. She had seen a thing or two. Had been around the block a few times. She was also gorgeous and extremely erotic. And he was learning about old Hollywood. Her late husband Stanley had been Mack Sennett's right hand man for years. She knew the place when it was a village.
The night before they had sat in her huge baronial living room surrounded by the finest works of art you could imagine and she spoke about her life.
'My dear late husband was a very bright man and for a careful man he was very willing to take a calculated risk. We met in New York. Two kids, we were two kids. He was a stage manager in vaudeville. My family was in vaudeville, as you know already, Desmond. My father had a very successful act with his brother but it was a difficult life. I think I was looking for something a little more settled.'
She took a sip of her wine and leant back.
'We met at the Old Amsterdam and I loved him from the moment I set eyes on him. Aren't I lucky?'
Desmond smiled and nodded.
'You have to be careful in our business,' she said as she pushed her hair off her face. Desmond felt flattered by her use of the 'our'.
'Relationships are very important. I suppose that's true of any business. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, we met in New York and Stanley already had his eyes set on the new nickolodean craze. He wanted in. Stanley was extremely competent. Oh goodness am I repeating myself? Anyway my late husband was a man who could get thing done. His single greatest talent was that he never, ever gave up. He was surely no saint but in his own unique way he was a great man. Perhaps I always saw him through rose tinted glasses. He could be the most infuriating man and he could say thoughtless, horrible things without thinking but I always forgave him because he also had the sweetest heart of any person I ever knew. He was full of Irish blarney. One of the first things he ever said to me (I would make special trips backstage to see him), was ' Miss if you were any prettier I couldn't be held responsible for my actions.' There he was standing there among the ropes and the mysterious backstage of this brave old theatre and me in my best dress with the velvet curtains touching my back and feeling the blush moving up my face but still keeping my eyes on him. I was very proud of that. Holding his bold, all seeing stare. Him standing there all tall and strong and really time stopped, everything stopped. If only I knew what I was getting myself in for! It is really impossible to tell anyone else about what a shared life means. We grew together. As I said, we were just kids and we grew together like two vines, intertwining. I'm sorry Desmond. I promised myself I wouldn't cry and yet here I am doing it.'
She took out her small handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.
'So he met some of the early nickolodean operators and became very knowledgeable about the business. He knew more about the business than anyone, really, and this was when Thalberg was still a kid. Then he met Mack Sennett and his course was set. He became Mack's most loyal and competent lieutenants. We lived and worked together in those days. Show people were their own little world. Oh, Hollywood was so beautiful back then. A dusty, quiet village and in the spring the hills would be covered in blooming wildflowers and there were dusty tracks everywhere. This was right at the beginning. We felt like pioneers. Well, we were pioneers. '
She looked very young at that moment. 'We were young, healthy, good looking and living in lotus land. We worked hard but on the weekend we had wonderful parties. It was all so fun and carefree. I wonder why that ended? It all became bigger and bigger and very serious. And Stanley had a lot of responsibility. And my career went through the roof. I wouldn't wish fame on my worst enemy. We built this beautiful place and filled it with beautiful things. Somehow we managed to keep our connection. You remind me a lot of him Desmond. The same self possession. Physically imposing. Handsome. We were happy. He never neglected his nuptual duties, let me assure you. He died much too young. 40 years old. Died at his desk. And he had organised everything perfectly. Oh listen to me. What a chatterbox I have become.'
She leant forward, touched his face and then they kissed. After that they took their wine glasses and walked together, hand in hand, upstairs. They made love on crisp white sheets, as a breeze blew in through the French doors, carrying with it a scent of the ocean. They held each other and the moon lit the room and their naked bodies.
The days, weeks, months passed. Where does time go? Skips away. Slips away. Mother and Father came to visit. Mack and Stanley built a studio and somewhere in all of that, somehow - like cutting a piece of fabric and looking through the hole - I became a star.
Now you have to understand, I have to tell you this and look you in the eyes as I say it so you get it, I never ever dreamt of being a star. Stanley made more than enough money to keep us very well. Sure, I wanted to work, appear in two reelers, but I never expected to be a star of the silver screen. Surprising to imagine it really because it was all different after that.
Let's go back to the beginning. After appeared in quite a few two reelers it became clear the camera loved me and so did the audience. You have to remember in those days Hollywood was a very different town. It was a village. Everybody knew everybody and many actors would walk around town wearing greasepaint whether they were actually in a movie or not. They would congregate at the Hollywood Hotel. There were no agents. They would wait there to see if they were needed.
I had no ambition at all so it was strange to be catapulted into the spotlight. The fan letters began arriving. Mack wrote scripts just for me. My vehicles. Tailormade. We would certainly churn them out. A new movie every other week or fortnight filmed in and around the studio in the up and down streets of Edendale. It was nervewracking to think that a film, a story, revolved around me.
Now other memories push in, jump the queue, demand to be heard.
The studio shone all bright and new. The glass panes, washed only once, and the freshly finished cement pavements, all just waiting. Norma had watched the workmen setting up the wooden moulds, fixing the pieces of string, pouring the cement, grey and stoney and then smoothing it out with flat pieces of timber. Then seeing them, all taut bodies and tanned, resting under that old eucalyptus down near the main entrance. The wind blowing up, catching the dust.
They were creating something completely new here, she knew that. The pride she felt in the enterprise, her part in it and in Stanley and Mack, could be measured in oceans. Some mornings she felt dizzy with pride. Bursting with. Perhaps this was how it felt, at moments, to be a mother. Watching your baby's first step.
The place was still unfinished but it was open for production. She pushed open the door to the glass ceiled stage and stepped into the space. She could still smell the paint, and cement and glue. The place felt peaceful, empty of memories, free from the burden of history. In the far corner Mack was talking with Ted, the set designer. Ted was seated and Mack leant over the table, his hand on the corner of the paper.
'Good morning Norma. Won't be a minute.'
'Good morning Mack. Ted. No hurry.'
She looked around her and above her at the great sheets of glass that framed the sky. Suddenly the space was filled with a great sound. She turned and saw that one of the plates of glass had fallen from the ceiling and landed not far from where Mack and Ted worked. They had turned to the spot, eyes as big as saucers.
'Holy Mary, Mother of God. That was close. Lucky no one got killed, ' Mack said loudly before returning to the plans on the table.
Well, after that someone came and cleared up the glass. And I'm standing there thinking, 'What would have happened if I had decided to stroll around the space or if Mack and Ted and the table had been a few feet across?' I mean it was simple dumb luck that no one was killed.
Norma loved that about Mack: his ability to let things go. She was sure he brooded on things, what Irishman didn't?, but he saved that for the dead of night. The boy from Canada who still had that politeness and friendliness. Steeped in showbiz. She often thought they were two of a kind, Mack and her. Showbiz in their bones.
Sometimes when the three of them were together, and Stanley would make one of his statements, Mack and her would look at each other, just a quick glance. They were young and silly and perhaps they should have been more careful. They never did anything, of course, but she sometimes felt Stanley's hurt.
'So, let's do it again. Norma could you move a bit back when the door opens?' Mack pointed at the floor.
Norma stepped back.
Then there was the important moment when Norma's character realises the baby is gone. Norma asked that one of Verdi's arias be played on the phonograph. Mack sat very close and spoke to her and used his hands to indicate where he wanted her to look. Norma felt the music touch her and imagined the horror and the sadness, that mix. The fear building to unimagineable terror.
The set was quiet and all that Norma heard was Verdi's aria rolling around and over her. Everything faded and all she had was the music and the moment.
Clinton De Vere