by J.G. Ballard
The evening deepened, and the apartment building withdrew into the darkness. As usual at this hour, the high-rise was silent, as if everyone in the huge building was passing through a border zone. On the roof the dogs whimpered to themselves. Royal blew out the candles in the dining-room and made his way up the steps to the penthouse. Reflecting the distant lights of the neighbouring high-rises, the chromium shafts of the callisthenics machine seemed to move up and down like columns of mercury, a complex device recording the shifting psychological levels of the residents below. As Royal stepped on to the roof the darkness was lit by the white forms of hundreds of birds. Their wings flared in the dark air as they struggled to find a perch on the crowded elevator heads and balustrades.
Royal waited until they surrounded him, steering their beaks away from his legs with his stick. He felt himself becoming calm again. If the women and the other members of his dwindling entourage had decided to leave him, so much the better. Here in the darkness among the birds, listening to them swoop and cry, the dogs whimpering in the children's sculpture-garden, he felt most at home. He was convinced more than ever that the birds were attracted here by his own presence.
Royal scattered the birds out of his way and pushed back the gates of the sculpture-garden. As they recognized him, the dogs began to whine and strain, pulling against their leads. These retrievers, poodles and dachshunds were all that remained of the hundred or so animals who had once lived in the upper floors of the high-rise. They were kept here as a strategic food reserve, but Royal had seen to it that few of them had been eaten. The dogs formed his personal hunting pack, to be kept until the final confrontation when he would lead them down into the building, and throw open the windows of the barricaded apartments to admit the birds.
The dogs pulled at his legs, their leads entangled around the play-sculptures. Even Royal's favourite, the white alsatian, was restless and on edge. Royal tried to settle it, running his hands over the luminous but still bloodstained coat. The dog butted him nervously, knocking him back across the empty food-pails.
As Royal regained his balance, he heard the sound of voices surging up the central stairway a hundred feet behind him. Lights approached through the darkness, a procession of electric torches held at shoulder height. The beams of light cut through the night air, scattering the birds into the sky. A portable casette player boomed out its music over the clicking of dumb-bells. As Royal paused behind an elevator head, a group of his top-floor neighbours erupted on to the roof. Led by Pangbourne, they spread in a loose circle across the observation deck, ready to celebrate a recent triumph. Without Royal's approval or foreknowledge, a raid had taken place on the floors below.
The gynaecologist was in high excitement, waving the last stragglers up the staircase like a demented courier. From his mouth came a series of peculiar whoops and cries, barely articulated grunts that sounded like some Neanderthal mating call but, in fact, were Pangbourne's rendering of the recorded birth-cries analysed by his computer. These eerie and unsettling noises Royal had been forced to listen to for weeks as members of his entourage took up the refrain. A few days earlier he had finally banned the making of these noises altogether-sitting in the penthouse and trying to think about the birds, it unnerved him to hear the women in the kitchen next door emitting these clicks and grunts. However, Pangbourne held regular sessions in his own quarters at the opposite end of the roof, where he would play through his library of recorded birth-cries for the benefit of the women crouching in a hushed circle on the floor around him. Together they mimicked these weird noises, an oral emblem of Pang-bourne's growing authority.
Now they had left Royal, and were giving full vent to everything they had learned, hooting and growling like a troupe of demented mothers-to-be invoking their infants' birth-traumas.
Waiting for the right moment to make his entrance, Royal heeled the alsatian behind a tattered awning that leaned against the elevator head. For once he was glad that he was wearing his tuxedo-the white safari-jacket would have stood out like a flame.
Two "guests' had been picked up, a cost-accountant from the 32nd floor with a bandaged head, and a myopic meteorologist from the 27th. The woman carrying the cassette player, he noted calmly, was his wife Anne. Sloppily dressed, her hair in a mess, she lolled against Pang-bourne's shoulder and then wandered about in the circle of torch-light like a moody trollop, brandishing the cassette player at the two prisoners.
"Ladies… please, now. There's more to come." Pang-bourne calmed the women, his slim fingers like brittle sticks in the confused light. The portable bar was lifted upright. A table and two chairs were set beside it, and the guests uneasily took their seats. The cost-accountant was trying to straighten the unravelling bandage around his head, as if frightened that he might be called upon to play blind man's buff. The meteorologist squinted shortsightedly into the torchlight, hoping to recognize someone among those takingpart in this revel. Royal knew everyone present, his neighbours of the past year, and could almost believe that he was attending one of the many cocktail parties held on the roof that summer. At the same time he felt that he was watching the opening act of a stylized opera or ballet, in which a restaurant is reduced to a single table and the doomed hero is taunted by a chorus of waiters, before being despatched to his death.
The hosts at this party had been drinking long before their two guests arrived. The jeweller's widow in the long fur coat, Anne with her cassette player, Jane Sheridan waving a cocktail shaker, all were lurching about as if to some deranged music only Royal was unable to hear.
Pangbourne called for quiet again. "Now-keep our guests amused. They're looking bored. What are we playing tonight?"
A medley of suggestions was shouted out.
"Flying School, doctor!"
Pangbourne turned to his guests. "I rather like Flying School… Did you know we've been running a flying school here? No-?"
"We've decided to offer you some free lessons," Anne Royal told them.
"One free lesson," Pangbourne corrected. Everyone sniggered at this. "But that's all you'll need. Isn't it, Anne?"
"It's a remarkably effective course."
"Solo first time, in fact."
Already, led by the jeweller's widow, they were dragging the injured accountant towards the balustrade, everyone tripping over the bloodstained bandage unwrapping around his head. A pair of tattered papier-mâché wings, part of a child's angel costume, were fastened to the victim's back. The grunting and hooting began again.
Dragging the reluctant alsatian after him, Royal stepped into view. Involved in their imminent execution, no one noticed him. As casually as he could muster, he called out, "Pangbourne…! Dr Pangbourne…!"
The noise slackened. Torch-beams flicked through the darkness, whipping across Royal's silk-lapelled dinner-jacket, fixing on the white alsatian trying to escape between his feet.
"Flying School! Flying School!" The sullen chant was taken up. Looking down at this unruly gang, Royal could almost believe that he was surrounded by a crowd of semi-literate children. The zoo had rebelled against its keeper.
Hearing Royal's voice, the gynaecologist turned from his prisoner, whose bandage he had expertly refastened. Wiping his hands, he strolled across the roof, almost mimicking Royal's casual saunter. But his eyes were examining Royal's face with a wholly professional curiosity, as if he had already decided that its expression of firm determination could be readjusted by cutting a minimum number of nerves and muscles.
The chant rose into the air. The torch-beams beat rhythmically across the darkness, striking Royal's face. He waited patiently for the clamour to subside. As Anne broke away from the crowd and ran forward he raised the chromium cane, ready to strike her. She stopped in front of him, smirking as she fluffed up her long skirt in a provocative gesture. Suddenly she turned the cassette player to full volume and thrust it into his face. A gabble of birth-cries filled the air.
"Royal…" the jeweller's widow shouted warningly. "Here's Wilder!"
Startled by the name, Royal flinched back, thrashing at the darkness with the chromium cane. The torch-beams swerved around him, the shadows of the overturned chairs swinging across the concrete roof. Expecting Wilder to lunge at him from behind, he stumbled across the awning and entangled himself in the dog's lead.
He heard laughter behind him. Controlling himself with an effort, he turned to face Pangbourne again. But the gynaecologist was walking away, looking back at him without hostility. He waved to Royal with a quick movement of his hand, as if flicking a dart at him, dismissing him for ever. The torches swung away from Royal, and everyone returned to the more serious business of tormenting the two guests.
Royal watched from the darkness as they argued over the prisoners. The confrontation with Pangbourne was over-or, more exactly, had never taken place. A simple ruse had unnnerved him, leaving him with the uncertainty of whether or not he really feared Wilder. He had been humiliated, but in a sense this was only just. The gynaecologist was the man for their hour. No zoo would survive for long with Pangbourne as its keeper, but he would provide a node of violence and cruelty that would keep alive in others the will to survive.
Let the psychotics take over. They alone understood what was happening. Holding to the alsatian, Royal let the dog drag him away towards the safety of the darkness near the sculpture-garden. The white forms of the birds were massed together on every ledge and parapet. Royal listened to the whimpering dogs. He had no means now of feeding them. The glass doors of the penthouse reflected the swerving birds, like the casements of a secret pavilion. He would close down his apartment, block the staircase and retreat to the penthouse, perhaps taking Mrs Wilder with him as his servant. Here he would preside over the high-rise, taking up his last tenancy in the sky.
He unlocked the gate of the sculpture-garden and moved through the darkness among the statues, releasing the dogs. One by one they scrambled away, until only Royal and the birds were left.
excerpt from the book: High Rise by J.G.Ballard
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