Read High-Rise Online

Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #prose_contemporary

High-Rise (18 page)

"I've been cleaning up for you," she told him with some pride. "You wanted me to, didn't you?"
"Of course..." Wilder gazed around the apartment in a lordly way. In fact, he barely noticed any changes and, if anything, preferred the apartment to be dirty.
"What's this?" She poked excitedly at the carton, jabbing him roguishly in the ribs as if she had caught a small son with a secret present for her. "You've got a surprise!"
"Leave it alone." Roughly, Wilder fended her away, almost knocking her off her feet. In a way, he enjoyed these absurd rituals. They touched levels of intimacy that had never been possible with Helen. The higher up the building he moved the more free he felt to play these games.
Mrs Hillman wrestled a pack of dog-biscuits out of the bag. Her small body was surprisingly agile. She gazed at the overweight basset hound on the label. Both she and her husband were as thin as scarecrows. Generously, Wilder handed her a can of cat-meat.
"Soak the biscuits in gin-I know you've got a bottle hidden somewhere. It will do you both good."
"We'll get a dog!" When Wilder looked irritated by this suggestion she sidled up to him teasingly, pressing her hands against his heavy chest. "A dog? Please, Dicky..."
Wilder tried to move away from her, but the lewd, wheedling tone and the pressure of her fingers on his nipples unsettled him. Their unexpected sexual expertise excited a hidden strain in his character. Hillman, the dress shirt around his head like a bloody turban, was looking up passively at them, his face drained of all colour. With his visual disturbances, Wilder reflected, the empty apartment would seem to be filled with embracing replicas of himself and Mrs Hillman. He pretended to accost her, out of curiosity running his hands over her buttocks, as small as apples, to see how the injured man would react. But Hillman gave no flicker of recognition. Wilder stopped stroking Mrs Hillman when he saw that she was openly responding to him. It was on other levels that he wanted their relationship to develop.
"Dicky, I know why you came to rescue me..." Mrs Hillman followed him around the barricade, still holding Wilder's arm. "Will you punish them?"
This was another of their games. "Rescue" she visualized primarily in terms of making "them"-that is, all the residents in the high-rise below the i7th floor-eat humble pie and prostrate themselves in an endless line outside her front door.
"I'll punish them," Wilder reassured her. "All right?"
They were leaning against the barricade, Mrs Hillman's sharp-chinned face against his chest. No more ill-suited couple, Wilder decided, could have been cast to play mock-mother and mock-son. Nodding eagerly at the prospect of revenge, Mrs Hillman reached into the barricade and pulled at a black metal pipe. As it emerged, Wilder saw that it was the barrel of a shotgun.
Surprised, Wilder took the weapon from her hands. She was smiling encouragingly, as if expecting Wilder to go out into the corridor at that very moment and shoot someone dead. He broke the breech. Two live shells were in place under the hammers.
Wilder moved the weapon out of Mrs Hillman's reach. He realized that this was probably only one of hundreds of similar firearms in the high-rise-sporting rifles, military service souvenirs, handbag pistols. But no one had fired a single shot, despite the epidemic of violence. Wilder knew perfectly well why. He himself would never bring himself to fire this shotgun, even at the point of death. There was an unspoken agreement among the residents of the high-rise that their confrontation would be resolved by physical means alone.
He jammed the shotgun back into the barricade and pushed Mrs Hillman in the chest. "Go away, rescue yourself..."
As she protested, half-playfully, half in earnest, he began to throw the dog-biscuits at her, scattering them around the bare floor. Wilder enjoyed abusing her. Deriding her in front of her supine husband, he withheld the food from her until she broke down and retreated to the kitchen. The evening progressed happily. Wilder became more and more oafish as the darkness settled over the high-rise, deliberately coarsening himself like a delinquent youth fooling about with a besotted headmistress.


Until two o'clock that morning, during a night intermittently disrupted by outbreaks of violence, Wilder remained within the Hillmans' apartment on the 17th floor. The marked decline in the number of incidents disturbed Wilder-for his ascent of the building he relied on being able to offer himself as an aggressive street-fighter to one or another of the warring groups. However, the open tribal conflicts of the previous week had now clearly ceased. With the breakdown of the clan structure, the formal boundary and armistice lines had dissolved, giving way to a series of small enclaves, a cluster of three or four isolated apartments. These were far more difficult to penetrate and exploit.
Sitting in the darkness on the floor of the sitting-room with Mrs Hillman, their backs to opposite walls, they listened to the muted noises around them. The residents of the high-rise were like creatures in a darkened zoo lying together in surly quiet, now and then tearing at each other in brief acts of ferocious violence.
The Hillmans' immediate neighbours, an insurance broker and his wife, two account executives and a pharmacologist, were listless and unorganized. Wilder had visited them several times, but found that appeals to self-advantage no longer roused them. In fact, only the most blatant expressions of irrational hostility could galvanize their glazed minds. Wilder's feigned and unfeigned rages, his fantasies of revenge roused them briefly from their state of torpor.
This regrouping around more radical and aggressive leaders was taking place all over the high-rise. In the hours after midnight torches flared behind the barricades in the lobbies and corridors, where enclaves of five or six residents squatted among the plastic garbage sacks, inciting each other like wedding guests making themselves drunk in the knowledge that they too will soon be copulating freely among the sweetmeats.
At two o'clock Wilder left the Hillmans' apartment and set about stirring up his neighbours. The men crouched together, clubs and spears in hand, hip-flasks of whisky pooled at their feet. The torch-beams illuminated the garbage-sacks piled high around them, a visible museum of their leavings. Wilder sat in the centre of the group, outlining his plans for another foraging expedition to the floors above. Although they had eaten little for days, his neighbours were reluctant to take part, fearful of the power of the residents above them. Skilfully, Wilder played on their fantasies. Once again, as his imaginary scapegoat, he selected the psychiatrist Adrian Talbot, whom he now accused of molesting a child in a swimming-pool changing cubicle. The untruth of the accusation, which they all well knew, only served to reinforce it. However, before they would move they insisted that Wilder invent an even more lurid crime, as if the imaginary nature of Talbot's sexual offences held the essence of their appeal. By the logic of the high-rise those most innocent of any offence became the most guilty.


Shortly before dawn Wilder found himself in an empty apartment on the 26th floor. Once occupied by a woman and her small son, the apartment had recently been abandoned, and no attempt had been made to padlock the door from the outside. Tired after the night's rampage, Wilder wasted no time in breaking down the door. He had side-stepped his raiding party, leaving them to break up Talbot's apartment for the tenth time. During these last minutes of darkness he would settle himself into an empty apartment, and sleep through the long hours of daylight in time to resume his ascent of the high-rise at dusk.
Wilder moved around the three rooms, satisfying himself that no one was hiding in the kitchen or bathroom. He wandered about in the darkness, kicking open the cupboards and knocking any books or ornaments to the floor. Before leaving, the owner had made a half-hearted attempt to tidy the apartment, packing away the child's toys in a bedroom wardrobe. The sight of the freshly swept floors and neatly furled curtains unsettled Wilder. He pulled the drawers on to the floor, heaved the mattresses off the beds, and urinated into the bath. His burly figure, trousers open to expose his heavy genitalia, glared at him from the mirrors in the bedroom. He was about to break the glass, but the sight of his penis calmed him, a white club hanging in the darkness. He would have liked to dress it in some way, perhaps with a hair-ribbon tied in a floral bow.
Now that he was alone Wilder felt confident of his progress. His hunger was overlaid by his feelings of triumph at having climbed more than half-way up the high-rise. From the windows the ground below was barely visible, part of a world he had left behind. Somewhere above him, Anthony Royal was strutting about with his white alsatian, unaware that he would soon be in for a surprise.
At dawn the owner of the apartment reappeared, and blundered into the kitchen where Wilder was resting. By now he had relaxed and was sitting comfortably on the floor with his back against the cooker, the remains of a meal scattered around him. He had found the few cans of food, along with two bottles of red wine, in their invariable hiding place, under the floorboards in the bedroom wardrobe. As he broke open the cans he played with a battery-powered tape-recorder which had been mixed up with the child's toys. He recorded his grunts and belches, playing them back to himself. Wilder was amused by the deft way in which he edited the tape, overlaying one set of belches with a second and third, a skill that now resided entirely in his scarred fingers with their cracked and blackened nails.
The bottles of claret had made him pleasantly drowsy. Smearing the red wine across his broad chest, he gazed up amiably at the startled woman who stumbled into the kitchen and tripped across his legs.
As she stared down at him, one hand nervously to her throat, Wilder remembered that she had once been called Charlotte Melville. The name had now detached itself from her, like an athlete's tie-on numeral blown away in a gust of wind. He knew that he had often been in this apartment, and this explained the vague familiarity of the child's toys and the furniture, although the chairs and sofa had been rearranged to conceal various hiding places.
"Wilder...?" As if uncertain about the name, Charlotte Melville pronounced it softly. She had been sheltering during the night with her son in the apartment of the statistician three floors above with whom she had become friendly. At the first light, when everything had settled down, she had come back intending to collect the last of her food reserves before abandoning the apartment for good. Swiftly composing herself, she looked down critically at the burly man with the exposed loins lying like a savage among her wine bottles, his chest painted with red stripes. She felt no sense of loss or outrage, but a fatalistic acceptance of the damage he had casually inflicted on her apartment, like the strong odour of his urine in the bathroom.
He appeared to be half asleep, and she stepped slowly towards the door. Wilder reached out with one hand and held her ankle. He smiled up at her blearily. Climbing to his feet, he circled around her, the tape-recorder raised in one hand as if about to hit her with it. Instead he switched it on and off, playing for her his selection of belches and grunts, obviously pleased with this demonstration of his unexpected expertise. He steered her slowly around the apartment as she backed from one room to the next, listening to his edited mutterings.
The first time he struck her, cuffing her to the bedroom floor, he tried to record her gasp, but the reel had jammed. He freed it carefully, bent down and slapped her again, only stopping when he had recorded her now deliberate cries to his satisfaction. He enjoyed terrorizing her, taping down her exaggerated but nonetheless frightened gasps. During their clumsy sexual act on the mattress in the child's bedroom he left the tape-recorder switched on beside them on the floor and played back the sounds of this brief rape, editing together the noise of her tearing clothes and panting anger.
Later, bored with the woman and these games with the tape-recorder, he hurled the machine into the corner. The sound of himself speaking, however coarsely, introduced a discordant element. He resented speaking to Charlotte or to anyone else, as if words introduced the wrong set of meanings into everything.
After she dressed they had breakfast together on the balcony, sitting at the table with an incongruous old-world formality. Charlotte ate the scraps of canned meat she found on the kitchen floor. Wilder finished the last of the claret, re-marking the red stripes across his chest. The rising sunlight warmed his exposed loins, and he felt like a contented husband sitting with his wife in a villa high on a mountainside. Naively, he wanted to explain to Charlotte his ascent of the apartment building, and shyly pointed to the roof. But she failed to get the point. She fastened her torn clothes around her strong body. Although her mouth and throat were bruised, she seemed unconcerned, watching Wilder with a passive expression.
From the balcony Wilder could see the roof of the high-rise, little more than a dozen floors above him. The intoxication of living at this height was as palpable as anything produced by the wine bottle in his hand. Already he could see the line of huge birds perched on the balustrades, no doubt waiting for him to arrive and take command.
Below, on the 20th floor, a man was cooking over a fire on his balcony, breaking up a coffee table and feeding the legs to the clutch of smouldering sticks on which a soup can was balanced.
A police car approached the perimeter entrance. A few residents were leaving for work at this early hour, neatly dressed in suits and raincoats, briefcases in hand. The abandoned cars in the access roads prevented the police from reaching the main entrance to the building, and the officers stepped out and spoke to the passing residents. Usually none of them would have replied to an outsider, but now they gathered in a group around the two policemen. Wilder wondered if they were going to give the game away, but although he could not hear them, he was certain that he knew what they were saying. Clearly they were pacifying the policemen, reassuring them that everything was in order, despite the garbage and broken bottles scattered around the building.

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