Read High-Rise Online

Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #prose_contemporary

High-Rise (12 page)

Leaning on his stick, Royal swung himself around the pools of water on the concrete floor. He had always wanted his own zoo, with half a dozen large cats and, more important, an immense aviary stocked with every species of bird. Over the years he had sketched many designs for the zoo, one of them-ironically-a high-rise structure, where the birds would be free to move about in those sections of the sky that were their true home. Zoos, and the architecture of large structures, had always been Royal's particular interest.
The drenched body of a Siamese cat lay in the gutter where the birds had cornered it-the small beast had climbed all the way up a ventilation shaft from the warm comfort of an apartment far below, embracing the daylight for a few last seconds before the birds destroyed it. Next to the cat was the carcass of a dead gull. Royal picked it up, surprised by its weight, stepped forward and with a powerful running throw hurled the bird far out into the air. It plummeted towards the ground, in an almost unending downward plunge, until it burst like a white bomb across the bonnet of a parked car.
No one had seen him, but Royal would not have cared anyway. For all his keen interest in his neighbours' behaviour, he found it difficult not to look down on them. The five years of his marriage to Anne had given him a new set of prejudices. Reluctantly, he knew that he despised his fellow residents for the way in which they fitted so willingly into their appointed slots in the apartment building, for their over-developed sense of responsibility and lack of flamboyance.
Above all, he looked down on them for their good taste. The building was a monument to good taste, to the well-designed kitchen, to sophisticated utensils and fabrics, to elegant and never ostentatious furnishings-in short, to that whole aesthetic sensibility which these well-educated professional people had inherited from all the schools of industrial design, all the award-winning schemes of interior decoration institutionalized by the last quarter of the twentieth Century. Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent. Visiting his neighbours' apartments, he would find himself physically repelled by the contours of an award-winning coffee-pot, by the well-modulated colour schemes, by the good taste and intelligence that, Midas-like, had transformed everything in these apartments into an ideal marriage of function and design. In a sense, these people were the vanguard of a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape. Royal would have given anything for one vulgar mantelpiece ornament, one less than snow-white lavatory bowl, one hint of hope. Thank God that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison.


On either side of him, the rain-soaked concrete stretched away into the evening mist. There were no signs of the white alsatian. Royal had reached the centre of the roof. The gulls sat on the ventilation shafts and elevator heads, watching him with their unusually alert eyes. Thinking that they might already have dined off the dog, Royal kicked aside an overturned chair and set off towards the stairhead, calling out the alsatian's name.
Ten feet from the private terrace at the southern end of the roof, a middle-aged woman in a long fur coat stood by the balustrade. Shivering continuously, she stared out across the development project at the silver back of the river. A trio of lighters followed a tug upstream, and a police patrol boat cruised along the north bank.
As Royal approached he recognized the widow of the dead jeweller. Was she waiting for the police to arrive, in some perverse way too proud to call them herself? He was about to ask if she had seen the alsatian, but he knew already that she would not reply. Her face was immaculately made up, but an expression of extreme hostility came through the rouge and powder, a gaze as hard as pain. Royal held tight to his cane. The woman's hands were hidden from sight, and he almost believed that inside the coat her jewelled fingers held a pair of unsheathed knives. For some reason he was suddenly convinced that she had been responsible for her husband's death, and that at any moment she would seize him and wrestle him over the ledge. At the same time, to his surprise, he found himself wanting to touch her, to put his arm around her shoulders. Some kind of wayward sexuality was at work. For a grotesque moment he was tempted to expose himself to her.
"I'm looking for Anne's alsatian," he said lamely. When she made no reply he added, "We've decided to stay on."
Confused by his response to this grieving woman, Royal turned away and made his way down the staircase to the floor below. Despite the pain in his legs he walked swiftly along the corridor, striking at the walls with his cane.
When he reached the central lobby the sounds of the alsatian's frantic barking rose clearly up the nearest of the five high-speed elevator shafts. Royal pressed his head to the door panel. The elevator car, with the alsatian snarling and leaping inside it, was on the 15th floor, its doors jammed open. Royal could hear the heavy blows of a metal club striking at the floor and walls, and the shouts of three attackers-one of them a woman-as they beat the animal to the floor.
When the dog's yelping subsided, the elevator at last responded to the call button. The car climbed to the top floor, where the doors opened on the barely conscious dog dragging itself around the bloodied floor. The animal's head and shoulders were heavy with blood. Matted hair streaked the walls of the cabin.
Royal tried to reassure it, but the alsatian snapped at his hand, frightened of the stick. Several of his neighbours gathered around, carrying an assortment of weapons-tennis rackets, dumb-bells and walking sticks. They were beckoned aside by a friend of Royal's, a gynaecologist named Pangbourne who lived in the apartment next to the lobby. A swimming partner of Anne's, he often played with the dog on the roof.
"Let me have a look at him... Poor devil, those savages have abused you..." Deftly he insinuated himself into the elevator and began to soothe the dog. "We'll get him back to your apartment. Royal. Then I suggest we discuss the elevator position."
Pangbourne knelt down on the floor, whistling a strange series of sounds at the dog. For some weeks the gynaecologist had been urging Royal to interfere with the building's electrical switching systems, as a means of retaliating against the lower floors. This supposed power over the high-rise was the chief source of Royal's authority with his neighbours, though he suspected that Pangbourne for one was well aware that he would never make use of it. With his soft hands and consulting-room manner the gynaecologist unsettled Royal slightly, as if he were always just about to ease an unwary patient into a compromising obstetric position-in fact, though, Pangbourne belonged to the new generation of gynaecologists who never actually touched their patients, let alone delivered a child. His speciality was the computerized analysis of recorded birth-cries, from which he could diagnose an infinity of complaints to come. He played with these tapes like an earlier generation of sorcerer examining the patterns of entrails. Characteristically, Pangbourne's one affair in the high-rise had been with a laboratory researcher on the and floor, a slim, silent brunette who probably spent all her time tormenting small mammals. He had broken this off soon after the outbreak of hostilities.
Nonetheless, he had a way with the injured alsatian. Royal waited while he calmed the dog and examined its wounds. He held its muzzle in his white hands as if he had just freed the poor beast from its caul. Together, he and Royal half-carried and half-dragged the dog back to Royal's apartment.
Fortunately, Anne and Jane Sheridan had left for the 10th-floor supermarket, picking up the one elevator released for general traffic.
Pangbourne settled the dog on the dust-sheet covering one of the sofas.
"I'm glad you were here," Royal told him. "You're not at your practice?"
Pangbourne stroked the alsatian's swollen head, his white hands delicate with blood. "I attend my consultancy two mornings a week, just enough time for me to listen to the latest recordings. Otherwise I'm on guard duty here." He peered pointedly at Royal. "If I were you, I'd keep a closer eye on Anne-unless you want her to be..."
"Sound advice. You've never thought of leaving? The conditions now..."
The gynaecologist frowned at Royal as if unsure whether he was serious. "I've only just moved here. Why should I concede anything to these people?" He pointed expressively at the floor with a bloodstained finger.
Impressed by the determination of this refined and punctilious man to defend his terrain, Royal followed him to the door, thanking him for his help and promising to discuss with him the sabotage of the elevators. For the next half an hour Royal cleaned the wounds of the alsa-tian. Although the dog began to sleep, the bloodstains on the white dust-sheet made Royal feel increasingly restless. The assault had released in him a more than half-conscious wish for conflict. To date he had been a moderating influence, restraining his neighbours from any unnecessary retaliatory action. Now he wanted trouble at any price.
Somewhere below a falling bottle burst on a balcony, a brief explosion against the rising background of over-noisy record-players, shouts and hammering. The light in the apartment had begun to fade, the shrouded furniture suspended around him like under-inflated clouds. The afternoon had passed, and soon the danger period would begin. Thinking of Anne trying to make her way back from the 10th floor, Royal turned to leave the apartment.
By the door he stopped, holding one hand over the dial of his wrist-watch. His concern for Anne was as strong as ever-if anything he felt more possessive towards her-but he decided to let another half-hour elapse before he went in search of her. Perversely, this would increase the element of danger, the chance of confrontation. He walked calmly around the apartment, noting the telephones on the floor and the neatly wrapped cables. Even if she were trapped somewhere, Anne would be unable to call him.
While he waited for the darkness, Royal went up to the penthouse and watched the gulls on the elevator heads. In the evening light their plumage was a vibrant white. Like birds at dusk waiting among the cornices of a mausoleum, they flicked their wings against the bone-like concrete. As if agitated by Royal's confused state, they rose excitedly into the air. Royal was thinking of his wife, of the possible assaults on her, an almost sexual fever of hazard and revenge tightening his nerves. In another twenty minutes he would leave the apartment and make his killing drop down the shafts of the high-rise, murder descending. He wished he could take the birds with him. He could see them diving down the elevator shafts, spiralling through the stairwells to swoop into the corridors. He watched them wheel through the air, listening to their cries as he thought of the violence to come.
9. lnto the Drop Zone
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.

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