Read High-Rise Online

Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #prose_contemporary

High-Rise (2 page)

Here she was making a point that had not escaped Laing during his inspection visits. The two thousand tenants formed a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people-lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives, along with a smaller group of airline pilots, film-industry technicians and trios of air-hostesses sharing apartments. By the usual financial and educational yardsticks they were probably closer to each other than the members of any conceivable social mix, with the same tastes and attitudes, fads and styles-clearly reflected in the choice of automobiles in the parking-lots that surrounded the high-rise, in the elegant but somehow standardized way in which they furnished their apartments, in the selection of sophisticated foods in the supermarket delicatessen, in the tones of their self-confident voices. In short, they constituted the perfect background into which Laing could merge invisibly. His sister's excited vision of Laing alone in an empty building was closer to the truth than she realized. The high-rise was a huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation. Its staff of air-conditioning conduits, elevators, garbage-disposal chutes and electrical switching systems provided a never-failing supply of care and attention that a century earlier would have needed an army of tireless servants.
Besides all this, once Laing had been appointed senior lecturer in physiology at the new medical school, the purchase of an apartment nearby made sense. It helped him as well to postpone once again any decision to give up teaching and take up general practice. But as he told himself, he was still waiting for his real patients to appear-perhaps he would find them here in the high-rise? Rationalizing his doubts over the cost of the apartment, Laing signed a ninety-nine-year lease and moved into his one-thousandth share of the cliff face.
The sounds of the party continued high over his head, magnified by the currents of air that surged erratically around the building. The last of the wine rilled along the balcony gutter, sparkling its way into the already immaculate drains. Laing placed his bare foot on the cold tiles and with his toes detached the label from its glass fragment. He recognized the wine immediately, a brand of expensive imitation champagne that was sold pre-chilled in the loth-floor liquor store and was its most popular line.
They had been drinking the same wine at Alice's party the previous evening, in its way as confused an affair as the one taking place that moment over his head. Only too keen to relax after demonstrating all afternoon in the physiology laboratories, and with an eye on an attractive fellow guest, Laing had inexplicably found himself in a minor confrontation with his immediate neighbours on the 25th floor, an ambitious young orthodontic surgeon named Steele and his pushy fashion-consultant wife. Half-way through a drunken conversation Laing had suddenly realized that he had managed to offend them deeply over their shared garbage-disposal chute. The two had cornered Laing behind his sister's bar, where Steele fired a series of pointed questions at him, as though seriously disturbed by a patient's irresponsible attitude towards his own mouth. His slim face topped by a centre parting-always an indication to Laing of some odd character strain-pressed ever closer, and he half-expected Steele to ram a metal clamp or retractor between his teeth. His intense, glamorous wife followed up the attack, in some way challenged by Laing's offhand manner, his detachment from the serious business of living in the high-rise. Laing's fondness for pre-lunch cocktails, his nude sunbathing on the balcony, and his generally raffish air obviously unnerved her. She clearly felt that at the age of thirty Laing should have been working twelve hours a day in a fashionable consultancy, and be in every way as respectably self-aggrandizing as her husband. No doubt she regarded Laing as some kind of internal escapee from the medical profession, with a secret tunnel into a less responsible world.
This low-level bickering surprised Laing, but after his arrival at the apartment building he soon recognized the extraordinary number of thinly veiled antagonisms around him. The high-rise had a second life of its own. The talk at Alice's party moved on two levels-never far below the froth of professional gossip was a hard mantle of personal rivalry. At times he felt that they were all waiting for someone to make a serious mistake.
After breakfast, Laing cleared the glass from the balcony. Two of the decorative tiles had been cracked. Mildly irritated, Laing picked up the bottle neck, still with its wired cork and foil in place, and tossed it over the balcony rail. A few seconds later he heard it shatter among the cars parked below.
Pulling himself together, Laing peered cautiously over the ledge-he might easily have knocked in someone's windscreen. Laughing aloud at this aberrant gesture, he looked up at the 31st floor. What were they celebrating at eleven-thirty in the morning? Laing listened to the noise mount as more guests arrived. Was this a party that had accidentally started too early, or one that had been going on all night and was now getting its second wind? The internal time of the high-rise, like an artificial psychological climate, operated to its own rhythms, generated by a combination of alcohol and insomnia.
On the balcony diagonally above him one of Laing's neighbours, Charlotte Melville, was setting out a tray of drinks on a table. Queasily aware of his strained liver, Laing remembered that at Alice's party the previous evening he had accepted an invitation to cocktails. Thankfully, Charlotte had rescued him from the orthodontic surgeon with the disposal-chute obsessions. Laing had been too drunk to get anywhere with this good-looking widow of thirty-five, apart from learning that she was a copywriter with a small but lively advertising agency. The proximity of her apartment, like her easy style, appealed to Laing, exciting in him a confusing blend of lechery and romantic possibility-as he grew older, he found himself becoming more romantic and more callous at the same time.
Sex was one thing, Laing kept on reminding himself, that the high-rise potentially provided in abundance. Bored wives, dressed up as if for a lavish midnight gala on the observation roof, hung around the swimming-pools and restaurant in the slack hours of the early afternoon, or strolled arm-in-arm along the loth-floor concourse. Laing watched them saunter past him with a fascinated but cautious eye. For all his feigned cynicism, he knew that he was in a vulnerable zone in this period soon after his divorce-one happy affair, with Charlotte Melville or anyone else, and he would slip straight into another marriage. He had come to the high-rise to get away from all relationships. Even his sister's presence, and the reminders of their high-strung mother, a doctor's widow slowly sliding into alcoholism, at one time seemed too close for comfort.
However, Charlotte had briskly put all these fears to rest. She was still preoccupied by her husband's death from leukaemia, her six-year-old son's welfare and, she admitted to Laing, her insomnia-a common complaint in the high-rise, almost an epidemic. All the residents he had met, on hearing that Laing was a physician, at some point brought up their difficulties in sleeping. At parties people discussed their insomnia in the same way that they referred to the other built-in design flaws of the apartment block. In the early hours of the morning the two thousand tenants subsided below a silent tide of seconal.
Laing had first met Charlotte in the 35th-floor swimming-pool, where he usually swam, partly to be on his own, and partly to avoid the children who used the 10th-floor pool. When he invited her to a meal in the restaurant she promptly accepted, but as they sat down at the table she said pointedly, "Look, I only want to talk about myself."
Laing had liked that.
At noon, when he arrived at Charlotte's apartment, a second guest was already present, a television producer named Richard Wilder. A thick-set, pugnacious man who had once been a professional rugby-league player, Wilder lived with his wife and two sons on the 2nd floor of the building. The noisy parties he held with his friends on the lower levels-airline pilots and hostesses sharing apartments-had already put him at the centre of various disputes. To some extent the irregular hours of the tenants on the lower levels had cut them off from their neighbours above. In an unguarded moment Laing's sister had whispered to him that there was a brothel operating somewhere in the high-rise. The mysterious movements of the air-hostesses as they pursued their busy social lives, particularly on the floors above her own, clearly unsettled Alice, as if they in some way interfered with the natural social order of the building, its system of precedences entirely based on floor-height. Laing had noticed that he and his fellow tenants were far more tolerant of any noise or nuisance from the floors above than they were from those below them. However, he liked Wilder, with his loud voice and rugby-scrum manners. He let a needed dimension of the unfamiliar into the apartment block. His relationship with Charlotte Melville was hard to gauge-his powerful sexual aggression was overlaid by a tremendous restlessness. No wonder his wife, a pale young woman with a postgraduate degree who reviewed children's books for the literary weeklies, seemed permanently exhausted.
As Laing stood on the balcony, accepting a drink from Charlotte, the noise of the party came down from the bright air, as if the sky itself had been wired for sound. Charlotte pointed to a fragment of glass on Laing's balcony that had escaped his brush.
"Are you under attack? I heard something fall." She called to Wilder, who was lounging back in the centre of her sofa, examining his heavy legs. "It's those people on the 31st floor."
"Which people?" Laing asked. He assumed that she was referring to a specific group, a clique of over-aggressive film actors or tax consultants, or perhaps a freak aggregation of dipsomaniacs. But Charlotte shrugged vaguely, as if it was unnecessary to be more specific. Clearly some kind of demarcation had taken place in her mind, like his own facile identification of people by the floors on which they lived.
"By the way, what are we all celebrating?" he asked as they returned to the living-room.
"Don't you know?" Wilder gestured at the walls and ceiling. "Full house. We've achieved critical mass."
"Richard means that the last apartment has been occupied," Charlotte explained. "Incidentally, the contractors promised us a free party when the thousandth apartment was sold."
"I'll be interested to see if they hold it," Wilder remarked. Clearly he enjoyed running down the high-rise. "The elusive Anthony Royal was supposed to provide the booze. You've met him, I think," he said to Laing. "The architect who designed our hanging paradise."
"We play squash together," Laing rejoined. Aware of the hint of challenge in Wilder's voice, he added, "Once a week-I hardly know the man, but I like him."
Wilder sat forward, cradling his heavy head in his fists. Laing noticed that he was continually touching himself, for ever inspecting the hair on his massive calves, smelling the backs of his scarred hands, as if he had just discovered his own body. "You're favoured to have met him," Wilder said. "I'd like to know why. An isolated character-I ought to resent him, but somehow I feel sorry for the man, hovering over us like some kind of fallen angel."
"He has a penthouse apartment," Laing commented. He had no wish to become involved in any tug of war over his brief friendship with Royal. He had met this well-to-do architect, a former member of the consortium which had designed the development project, during the final stages of Royal's recovery from a minor car accident. Laing had helped him to set up the complex callisthenics machine in the penthouse where Royal spent his time, the focus of a great deal of curiosity and attention. As everyone continually repeated, Royal lived "on top" of the building, as if in some kind of glamorous shack.
"Royal was the first person to move in here," Wilder informed him. "There's something about him I haven't put my finger on. Perhaps even a sense of guilt-he hangs around up there as if he's waiting to be found out. I expected him to leave months ago. He has a rich young wife, so why stay on in this glorified tenement?" Before Laing could protest, Wilder pressed on. "I know Charlotte has reservations about life here-the trouble with these places is that they're not designed for children. The only open space turns out to be someone else's car-park. By the way, doctor, I'm planning to do a television documentary about high-rises, a really hard look at the physical and psychological pressures of living in a huge condominium such as this one."
"You'll have a lot of material."
"Too much, as always. I wonder if Royal would take part-you might ask him, doctor. As one of the architects of the block and its first tenant, his views would be interesting. Your own, too..."
As Wilder talked away rapidly, his words over-running the cigarette smoke coming from his mouth, Laing turned his attention to Charlotte. She was watching Wilder intently, nodding at each of his points. Laing liked her determination to stick up for herself and her small son, her evident sanity and good sense. His own marriage, to a fellow physician and specialist in tropical medicine, had been a brief but total disaster, a reflection of heaven-only-knew what needs. With unerring judgment Laing had involved himself with this highly strung and ambitious young doctor, for whom Laing's refusal to give up teaching-in itself suspicious-and involve himself directly in the political aspects of preventive medicine had provided a limitless opportunity for bickering and confrontation. After only six months together she had suddenly joined an international famine-relief organization and left on a three-year tour. But Laing had made no attempt to follow her. For reasons he could not yet explain, he had been reluctant to give up teaching, and the admittedly doubtful security of being with students who were still almost his own age.
Charlotte, he guessed, would understand this. In his mind Laing projected the possible course of an affair with her. The proximity and distance which the high-rise provided at the same time,.that neutral emotional background against which the most intriguing relationships might develop, had begun to interest him for its own sake. For some reason he found himself drawing back even within this still imaginary encounter, sensing that they were all far more involved with each other than they realized. An almost tangible network of rivalries and intrigues bound them together.

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