by J.G. Ballard
During the week after the jeweller's death, events moved rapidly in a more disquieting direction. Richard Wilder, twenty-four floors below Dr Laing and for that reason far more exposed to the pressures generated within the building, was among the first to realize the full extent of the changes taking place.
Wilder had been away on location for three days, shooting scenes for a new documentary on prison unrest. A strike by the inmates at a large provincial prison, widely covered by the newspapers and television, had given him a chance to inject some directly topical footage into the documentary. He returned home in the early afternoon. He had telephoned Helen each evening from his hotel and questioned her carefully about conditions in the high-rise, but she made no particular complaints. Nevertheless, her vague tone concerned him.
When he had parked Wilder kicked open the door and lifted his heavy body from behind the steering wheel. From his place on the perimeter of the parking-lot he carefully scanned the face of the huge building. At first glance everything had settled down. The hundreds of cars were parked in orderly lines. The tiers of balconies rose through the clear sunlight, potted plants thriving behind the railings. For a moment Wilder felt a pang of regret-always a believer in direct action, he had enjoyed the skirmishes of the past week, roughing up his aggressive neighbours, particularly those residents from the top floors who had made life difficult for Helen and the two boys.
The one discordant note was provided by the fractured picture window on the 40th floor, through which the unfortunate jeweller had made his exit. At either end of the floor were two penthouse apartments, the north corner occupied by Anthony Royal, the other by the jeweller and his wife. The broken pane had not been replaced, and the asterisk of cracked glass reminded Wilder of some kind of cryptic notation, a transfer on the fuselage of a wartime aircraft marking a kill.
Wilder unloaded his suitcase from the car, and a holdall containing presents for Helen and his sons. On the rear seat was a lightweight cine-camera with which he planned to shoot a few hundred feet of pilot footage for his documentary on the high-rise. The unexplained death of the jeweller had confirmed his long-standing conviction that an important documentary was waiting to be made about life in the high-rise-perhaps taking the jeweller's death as its starting point. It was a lucky coincidence that he lived in the same block as the dead man-the programme would have all the impact of a personal biography. When the police investigation ended the case would move on to the courts, and a huge question mark of notoriety would remain immovably in place over what he liked to term this high-priced tenement, this hanging palace self-seeding its intrigues and destruction.
Carrying the luggage in his strong arms, Wilder set off on the long walk back to the apartment building. His own apartment was directly above the proscenium of the main entrance. He waited for Helen to emerge on to the balcony and wave him in, one of the few compensations for having to leave his car at the edge of the parking-lot. However, all but one of the blinds were still drawn.
Quickening his step, Wilder approached the inner lines of parked cars. Abruptly, the illusion of normalcy began to give way. The cars in the front three ranks were spattered with debris, their once-bright bodywork streaked and stained. The pathways around the building were littered with bottles, cans, and broken glass, heaped about as if they were being continuously shed from the balconies.
In the main entrance Wilder found that two of the elevators were out of order. The lobby was deserted and silent, as if the entire high-rise had been abandoned. The manager's office was closed, and unsorted mail lay on the tiled floor by the glass doors. On the wall facing the line of elevators was scrawled a partly obliterated message-the first of a series of slogans and private signals that would one day cover every exposed surface in the building. Fittingly enough, these graffiti reflected the intelligence and education of the tenants. Despite their wit and imagination, these complex acrostics, palindromes and civilized obscenities aerosolled across the walls soon turned into a colourful but indecipherable mess, not unlike the cheap wallpapers found in launderettes and travel-agencies which the residents of the high-rise most affected to despise.
Wilder waited impatiently by the elevators, his temper mounting. Irritably he punched the call buttons, but none of the cars showed any inclination to respond to him. All of them were permanently suspended between the 20th and 30th floors, between which they made short journeys. Picking up his bags, Wilder headed for the staircase. When he reached the 2nd floor he found the corridor in darkness, and tripped over a plastic sack stuffed with garbage that blocked his front door.
As he let himself into the hall his first impression was that Helen had left the apartment and taken the two boys away with her. The blinds in the living-room were lowered, and the air-conditioning had been switched off. Children's toys and clothes lay about on the floor.
Wilder opened the door of the boys' bedroom. They lay asleep together, breathing unevenly in the stale air. The remains of a meal left from the previous day were on a tray between the beds.
Wilder crossed the living-room to his own bedroom. One blind had been raised, and the daylight crossed the white walls in an undisturbed bar. Uncannily, it reminded Wilder of a cell he had filmed two days earlier in the psychiatric wing of the prison. Helen lay fully dressed on the neatly made bed. He assumed that she was asleep, but as he crossed the room, trying to quieten his heavy tread, her eyes watched him without expression.
"Richard… it's all right." She spoke calmly. "I've been awake-since you rang yesterday, in fact. Was it a good trip?"
She started to get up but Wilder held her head on the pillow.
The boys-what's going on here?"
"Nothing." She touched his hand, giving him a reassuring smile. "They wanted to sleep, so I let them. There isn't anything else for them to do. It's too noisy at night. I'm sorry the place is in such a mess."
"Never mind the place. Why aren't the boys at school?"
"It's closed-they haven't been since you left."
"Why not?" Irritated by his wife's passivity, Wilder began to knead his heavy hands together. "Helen, you can't lie here like this all day. What about the roof garden? Or the swimming-pool?"
"I think they only exist inside my head. It's too difficult…" She pointed to the cine-camera on the floor between Wilder's feet. "What's that for?"
"I may shoot some footage-for the high-rise project."
"Another prison documentary." Helen smiled at Wilder without any show of humour. "I can tell you where to start."
Wilder took her face in his hands. He felt the slim bones, as if making sure that this tenuous armature still existed. Somehow he would raise her spirits. Seven years earlier, when he had met her while working for one of the commercial television companies, she had been a bright and self-confident producer's assistant, more than a match for Wilder with her quick tongue. The time not spent in bed together they had spent arguing. Now, after the combination of the two boys and a year in the high-rise, she was withdrawing into herself, obsessively wrapped up with the children's most elementary activities. Even her reviewing of children's books was part of the same retreat.
Wilder brought her a glass of the sweet liqueur she liked. Trying to decide what best to do, he rubbed the muscles of his chest. What had at first pleased Wilder, but now disturbed him most of all, was that she no longer noticed his affairs with the bachelor women in the high-rise. Even if she saw her husband talking to one of them Helen would approach, tugging the boys after her, as if no longer concerned with what his wayward sex might be up to. Several of these young women, like the television actress whose Afghan he had drowned in the pool during the blackout, or the continuity girl on the floor above them, had become Helen's friends. The latter, a serious-minded girl who read Byron in the supermarket queues, worked for an independent producer of pornographic films, or so Helen informed him matter-of-factly. "She has to note the precise sexual position between takes. An interesting job-I wonder what the qualifications are, or the life expectancy?"
Wilder had been shocked by this. Vaguely prudish, he had never been able to question the continuity girl. When they made love in her 3rd-floor apartment he had the uneasy feeling that she was automatically memorizing every embrace and copulatory posture in case he was suddenly called away, and might take off again from exactly the same point with another boy-friend. The limitless professional expertise of the high-rise had its unsettling aspects.
Wilder watched his wife sip the liqueur. He stroked her small thighs in an attempt to revive her. "Helen, come on-you look as if you're waiting for the end. We'll straighten everything and take the boys up to the swimming-pool."
Helen shook her head. "There's too much hostility. It's always been there, but now it stands out. People pick on the children-without realizing it, I sometimes think." She sat on the edge of the bed while Wilder changed, staring through the window at the line of high-rises receding across the sky. "In fact, it's not really the other residents. It's the building…"
"I know. But once the police investigation is over you'll find that everything will quieten down. For one thing, there'll be an overpowering sense of guilt."
"What are they investigating?"
"The death, of course. Of our high-diving jeweller." Picking up the cine-camera, Wilder took off the lens shroud. "Have you spoken to the police?"
"I don't know. I've been avoiding everyone." Brightening herself by an effort of will, she went over to Wilder. "Richard-have you ever thought of selling the apartment? We could actually leave. I'm serious."
"Helen…" Nonplussed for a moment, Wilder stared down at the small, determined figure of his wife. He took off his trousers, as if exposing his thick chest and heavy loins in some way reasserted his authority over himself. "That's equivalent to being driven out. Anyway, we'd never get back what we paid for the apartment."
He waited until Helen lowered her head and turned away to the bed. At her insistence, six months earlier, they had already moved from their first apartment on the ground floor. At the time they had seriously discussed leaving the high-rise altogether, but Wilder had persuaded Helen to stay on, for reasons he had never fully understood. Above all, he would not admit his failure to deal on equal terms with his professional neighbours, to outstare these self-satisfied cost-accountants and marketing managers.
As his sons wandered sleepily into the room Helen remarked, "Perhaps we could move to a higher floor."
Shaving his chin, Wilder pondered this last comment of his wife's. The frail plea had a particular significance, as if some long-standing ambition had been tapped inside his head. Helen, of course, was thinking in terms of social advancement, of moving in effect to a "better neighbourhood", away from this lower-class suburb to those smarter residential districts somewhere between the I5th and 30th floors, where the corridors were clean and the children would not have to play in the streets, where tolerance and sophistication civilized the air.
Wilder had something different in mind. As he listened to Helen's quiet voice, murmuring to her two sons as if speaking to them from inside a deep dream, he examined himself in the mirror. Like a prize-fighter reassuring himself before a match, he patted the muscles of his stomach and shoulders. In the mental as well as the physical sense, he was almost certainly the strongest man in the building, and Helen's lack of spirit annoyed him. He realized that he had no real means of coping with this kind of passivity. His response to it was still framed by his upbringing, by an over-emotional mother who loved him devotedly through the longest possible childhood she could arrange and thereby given Wilder what he always thought of as his unshakeable self-confidence. She had separated from Wilder's father-a shadowy figure of disreputable back-ground-when he was a small child. The second marriage, to a pleasant but passive accountant and chess enthusiast, had been wholly dominated by the relationship between the mother and her bullock-like son. When he met his future wife Wilder naively believed that he wanted to pass on these advantages to Helen, to look after her and provide an endless flow of security and good humour. Of course, as he realized now, no one ever changed, and for all his abundant self-confidence he needed to be looked after just as much as ever. Once or twice, in unguarded moments during the early days of their marriage, he had attempted to play the childish games he had enjoyed with his mother. But Helen had not been able to bring herself to treat Wilder like her son. For her part, Wilder guessed, love and care were the last things she really wanted. Perhaps the breakdown of life in the high-rise would fulfil her unconscious expectations more than she realized.
As he massaged his cheeks Wilder listened to the air humming erratically in the air-conditioning flues behind the shower stall, pumped all the way down from the roof of the building thirty-nine floors above. He watched the water emerge from the tap. This too had made its long descent from the reservoirs on the roof, running down the immense internal wells riven through the apartment block, like icy streams percolating through a subterranean cavern.
His determination to make the documentary had a strong personal bias, part of a calculated attempt to come to terms with the building, meet the physical challenge it presented to him, and then dominate it. For some time now he had known that he was developing a powerful phobia about the high-rise. He was constantly aware of the immense weight of concrete stacked above him, and the sense that his body was the focus of the lines of force running through the building, almost as if Anthony Royal had deliberately designed his body to be held within their grip. At night, as he lay beside his sleeping wife, he would often wake from an uneasy dream into the suffocating bedroom, conscious of each of the 999 other apartments pressing on him through the walls and ceiling, forcing the air from his chest. He was sure that he had drowned the Afghan, not because he disliked the dog particularly or wanted to upset its owner, but to revenge himself on the upper storeys of the building. He had seized the dog in the darkness when it blundered into the pool. Giving in to a cruel but powerful impulse, he had pulled it below the water. As he held its galvanized and thrashing body under the surface, in a strange way he had been struggling with the building itself.
Thinking of those distant heights, Wilder took his shower, turning the cold tap on full and letting the icy jet roar acrosss his chest and loins. Where Helen had begun to falter, he felt more determined, like a climber who has at long last reached the foot of the mountain he has prepared all his life to scale.
excerpt from the novel: High Rise by J.G.Ballard
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