At seven o'clock Anthony Royal set out with the white alsatian to find his wife. The dog had recovered sufficiently from its beating to limp along in front of him. Its damp pelt was marked with a vivid crimson bloom. Like the bloodstains on his white jacket, Royal was proud of these signs of combat. As if mimicking the dog, he wore its blood on his chest and hips, the insignia of an executioner's apparel yet to be designed.
He began his descent into the lower depths of the building in the high-speed elevator lobby. A group of excited neighbours had just emerged from one of the cars. Four floors down, an apartment had been ransacked by a party of tenants from the 15th floor. These sporadic raids on apartments were taking place with increasing frequency. Empty apartments, even if left for no more than a single day, were especially vulnerable. Some unconscious system of communication alerted any would-be raiders that an apartment a dozen floors above or below was ripe for ransack.
With difficulty Royal found an elevator to take him down to the 35th floor. The restaurant had closed. After serving a last lunch to the Royals the chef and his wife had left for good. Chairs and tables had been stacked around the kitchen in a barricade, and the revolving door was padlocked. The long observation windows, with their magnificent view, were shuttered and chained, throwing the north end of the pool into darkness.
The last swimmer, a market analyst from the 38th floor, was leaving the swimming-pool. His wife waited protectively outside his cubicle as he changed. She watched the alsatian lapping at the water lying on the greasy tiles by the diving-board. When the dog relieved itself against the door of an empty cubicle her face was expressionless. Royal felt a modest pride in this act, which rekindled a primitive territorial reflex. The marking of this cubicle with the dog's over-bright urine defined the small terrain coming under his sway.
For the next hour Royal continued his search for his wife, descending deeper into the central mass of the high-rise. As he moved from one floor to the next, from one elevator to another, he realized the full extent of its deterioration. The residents' rebellion against the apartment building was now in full swing. Garbage lay heaped around the jammed disposal chutes. The stairways were littered with broken glass, splintered kitchen chairs and sections of handrail. Even more significant, the pay-phones in the elevator lobbies had been ripped out, as if the tenants, like Anne and himself, had agreed to shut off any contact with the world outside.
The further down Royal reached, the greater the damage. Fire safety doors leaned off their hinges, quartz inspection windows punched out. Few corridor and staircase lights still worked, and no effort had been made to replace the broken bulbs. By eight o'clock little light reached the corridors, which became dim tunnels strewn with garbage sacks. The lurid outlines of lettered slogans, aerosolled in luminous paint across the walls, unravelled around him like the decor of a nightmare.
Rival groups of residents stood around in the lobbies, guarding their elevators and watching each other along the corridors. Many of the women had portable radios slung from their shoulders, which they switched from station to station as if tuning up for an acoustic war. Others carried cameras and flash equipment, ready to record any acts of hostility, any incursions into their territory.
By changing elevators and making journeys of two floors at a time, Royal finally descended into the lower half of the apartment building. He was unmolested by the other residents, who watched him as he entered their lobbies, moving out of his way as he strolled past. The wounded alsatian and Royal's bloodstained jacket gave him free passage through these rival clans, as if he were a betrayed landowner descending from his keep to parade his wounds among his rebellious tenants.
By the time he reached the 10th floor the concourse was almost deserted. A few residents wandered around the shopping mall, staring at the empty chromium counters. The bank and liquor store were closed, their grilles chained. There was no sign of Anne. Royal led the alsatian through the swing doors into the swimming-pool, now barely half full. The yellow water was filled with debris, the floor at the shallow end emerging like a beach in a garbage lagoon. A mattress floated among the bottles, surrounded by a swill of cardboard cartons and newspapers.
Even a corpse would go unnoticed here, Royal reflected. As the alsatian snuffled its way along the vandalized changing cubicles, Royal waved his cane at the humid air, trying to stir it into life. He would soon suffocate here in the lower section of the apartment building. During even this brief visit he had felt crushed by the pressure of all the people above him, by the thousands of individual lives, each with its pent-up time and space.
From the elevator lobby on the far side of the swimming-pool came the sounds of shouting. Urging on the dog, Royal strode to the rear exit behind the diving-boards. Through the glass doors he watched a heated argument taking place outside the entrance to the junior school. Some twenty men and women were involved, one group from the lower floors carrying desks and chairs, a blackboard and artist's easel, the other trying to prevent them from re-occupying the classrooms.
Scuffles soon broke out. Egged on by a film-editor wielding a desk over his head, the parents pressed forward determinedly. Their opponents, residents from the nth and 12th floors, stood their ground, forming a heavy-breathing cordon. A bad-tempered brawl developed, men and women wrestling clumsily with each other.
Royal pulled the alsatian away, deciding to leave this jostling group to settle their own dispute. As he turned to continue his search for Anne, the staircase doors leading into the lobby were flung back. A group of residents, all from the 14th and 15th floors, leapt out and hurled themselves into the melee. They were led by Richard Wilder, cine-camera gripped like a battle standard in one hand. Royal assumed that Wilder was filming an episode from the documentary he had been talking about for so long, and had set up the entire scene. But Wilder was in the thick of the fray, aggressively wielding the cine-camera as he urged on his new allies against his former neighbours. The raiding party was shouldered back towards the staircase in disarray, the parents dropping the desks and blackboard.
Wilder slammed the staircase doors behind them. Expelling his sometime neighbours and friends had clearly given him enormous satisfaction. Waving his camera, he pointed to the classroom of the junior school. Two young women, Royal's wife and Jane Sheridan, were crouching behind an overturned desk. Like children caught red-handed in some mischief, they watched Wilder as he beckoned theatrically towards them.
Holding the alsatian on a short leash, Royal pushed back the glass doors. He strode through the residents in the lobby, who were now happily breaking up the children's desks.
"It's all right, Wilder," he called out in a firm but casual voice. "I'll take over."
He stepped past Wilder and entered the classroom. He lifted Anne to her feet. "I'll get you out of here-don't worry about Wilder."
"I'm not…" For all her ordeal, Anne was remarkably unruffled. She gazed at Wilder with evident admiration. "My God, he's rather insane…"
Royal waited for Wilder to attack him. Despite the twenty years between them, he felt calm and self-controlled ready for the physical confrontation. But Wilder made no attempt to move. He watched Royal with interest, patting one armpit in an almost animal way, as if glad to see Royal here on the lower levels, directly involved at last in the struggle for territory and womenfolk. His shirt was open to the waist, exposing a barrel-like chest that he showed off with some pride. He held the cine-camera against his cheek as if he were visualizing the setting and choreography of a complex duel to be fought at some more
convenient time on a stage higher in the building.
That night, when they had returned to their apartment on the 40th floor, Royal set about asserting his leadership of the topmost levels of the high-rise. First, while his wife and Jane Sheridan rested together in Anne's bed, Royal attended to the alsatian. He fed the dog in the kitchen with the last of its food. The wounds on its shoulders and head were as hard as coins. Royal was more aroused by the injuries to the dog than by any indignity suffered by his wife. He had almost made Anne's ordeal certain by deliberately postponing his search for her. As he expected, she and Jane had been unable to find an elevator when they had finished shopping at the supermarket. After being molested in the lobby by a drunken sound-man they had taken refuge in the deserted classroom.
"They're all making their own films down there," Anne told him, clearly fascinated by her heady experience of the lower orders at work and play. "Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras are shooting away."
"They're showing them in the projection theatre," Jane confirmed. "Crammed in there together seeing each other's rushes."
"Except for Wilder. He's waiting for something really gruesome."
Both women turned without thinking to look at Royal, but he took this in his stride. In an obscure way, it was his affection for Anne that had led him to display her to his neighbours below, his contribution to the new realm they would create together. By contrast, the alsatian belonged to a more practical world. Already he knew that the dog might well prove useful, be more easily bartered than any woman, in the future that lay ahead. He decided not to throw away the bloodstained jacket, glad to wear the dog's blood against his chest. He refused any offers to clean it from the wives of his fellow residents who came in to comfort the two young women.
The assaults on the alsatian, and on Royal's wife, made his apartment a natural focus of his neighbours' decision to regain the initiative before they were trapped on the roof of the high-rise. To Pangbourne he explained that it was vital for them to enlist the support of the tenants living on the floors immediately below the 35th.
"To survive, we need allies as a buffer against any attacks from the lower levels, and also to give us access to more of the elevators. We're in danger of being cut off from the central mass of the building."
"Right," the gynaecologist agreed, glad to see that Royal had at last woken up to the realities of then: position. "Once we've gained a foothold there we can play these people off against those lower down-in short balkanize the centre section and then begin the colonization of the entire building…"
In retrospect, it surprised Royal how easily they were able to implement these elementary schemes. At nine o'clock, before the evening's parties began, Royal began to enlist the support of the residents below the 35th-floor swimming-pool. Expertly, Pangbourne played on their grievances. These people shared many of the problems of the top-floor tenants-their cars had also been damaged, and they had the same struggles with the declining water-supply and air-conditioning. In a calculated gesture, Royal and Pangbourne offered them the use of the top-floor elevators. To reach their apartments they would no longer have to enter the main lobby and run the gauntlet of thirty intervening floors. They would now wait for a top-level tenant to appear, enter the private lobby with him and ride straight to the 35th floor without harassment, and then walk the few steps down to their apartments.
The offer was accepted, Royal and Pangbourne deliberately asking for no concessions in return. The deputation returned to the 4oth floor, the members dispersing to their apartments to prepare for the evening's festivities. During the previous hour a few trivial incidents had occurred-the middle-aged wife of a 28th-floor account-executive had been knocked unconscious into the half-empty swimming-pool, and a radiologist from the 7th floor had been beaten up among the driers in the hairdressing salon-but in general everything within the high-rise was normal. As the night progressed, the sounds of continuous revelry filled the building. Beginning with the lower floors, the parties spread upwards through the apartment block, investing it in an armour of light and festivity. Standing on his balcony, Royal listened to the ascending music and laughter as he waited for the two young women to dress. Far below him, a car drove along the access road to the nearby high-rise, its three occupants looking up at the hundreds of crowded balconies. Anyone seeing this ship of lights would take for granted that the two thousand people on board lived together in a state of corporate euphoria.
Invigorated by this tonic atmosphere, Anne and Jane Sheridan had made a rapid recovery. Anne no longer referred to their leaving the high-rise, and seemed to have forgotten that she had ever made the decision to go. The rough and tumble in the junior school had given her that previously missing sense of solidarity with the other tenants of the high-rise. In the future, violence would clearly become a valuable form of social cement. As Royal escorted her to the first party of the evening, given by a newspaper columnist on the 37th floor, she and Jane strolled arm in arm, buoyed up by reports of further confrontations, and by the news that two more floors, the 6th and 14th, were now in darkness.
Pangbourne congratulated Royal on this, almost as if he believed that Royal was responsible. No one, even on the top floors, seemed aware of the contrast between the well-groomed revellers and the dilapidated state of the building. Along corridors strewn with uncollected garbage, past blocked disposal chutes and vandalized elevators, moved men in well-tailored dinner-jackets. Elegant women lifted long skirts to step over the debris of broken bottles. The scents of expensive after-shave lotions mingled with the aroma of kitchen wastes.
These bizarre contrasts pleased Royal, marking the extent to which these civilized and self-possessed professional men and women were moving away from any notion of rational behaviour. He thought of his own confrontation with Wilder, which summed up all the forces in collision within the high-rise. Wilder had obviously begun his ascent of the building again, and had climbed as far as the 15th floor. By rights the high-rise should be totally deserted except for Wilder and himself. The real duel would be resolved among the deserted corridors and abandoned apartments of the building inside their heads, watched only by the birds.
Now that she had accepted it, the threat of violence in the air had matured Anne. Standing by the fireplace in the columnist's drawing-room, Royal watched her with affection. She was no longer flirting with the elderly businessmen and young entrepreneurs, but listening intently to Dr Pangbourne, as if aware that the gynaecologist might be useful to her in more ways than the purely professional. Despite his pleasure in displaying her to the other residents, Royal felt far more protective of her. This sexual territoriality extended to Jane Sheridan.
"Have you thought about moving in with us?" he asked her. "Your own apartment is very much exposed."
"I'd like to-Anne did mention it. I've already brought some things over."
Royal danced with her in the garbage-stacked hallway, openly feeling her strong hips and thighs, as if this inventory established his claim to these portions of her body at a future date.
Hours later, at some period after midnight when it seemed to Royal that these parties had been going on for ever, he found himself drunk in an empty apartment on the 39th floor. He was lying back on a settee with Jane against his shoulder, surrounded by tables loaded with dirty glasses and ashtrays, all the debris of a party abandoned by its guests. The music from the balconies nearby was overlaid by the noise of sporadic acts of violence. Somewhere a group of residents was shouting in a desultory way, hammering on the doors of an elevator shaft.
A power failure had switched out the lights. Royal lay back in the darkness, steadying his slowly rotating brain against the illumination of the nearby high-rise. Without thinking, he began to caress Jane, stroking her heavy breasts. She made no attempt to pull herself away from him. A few moments later, when the electric power returned, lighting up a single table-lamp lying on the floor of the balcony, she recognized Royal and settled herself across him.
Hearing a noise from the kitchen, Royal looked round to see his wife sitting at the table in her long gown, one hand on the electric coffee-percolator as it began to warm. Royal put his arms around Jane and embraced her with deliberate slowness, as if repeating for his wife's benefit a slow-motion playback. He knew that Anne could see them, but she sat quietly at the kitchen table, lighting a cigarette. During the sexual act that followed she watched them without speaking, as if she approved, not from any fashionable response to marital infidelity, but from what Royal realized was a sense of tribal solidarity, a complete deference to the clan leader.
excerpt from a novel: High-Rise by J.G.Ballard
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