Read High-Rise Online

Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #prose_contemporary

High-Rise (24 page)

In front of him the children in the sculpture-garden were playing with bones.
The circle of women drew closer. The first flames lifted from the fire, the varnish of the antique chairs crackling swiftly. From behind their sunglasses the women were looking intently at Wilder, as if reminded that their hard work had given them a strong appetite. Together, each removed something from the deep pocket of her apron.
In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. Shy but happy now, Wilder tottered across the roof to meet his new mothers.
19. Night Games
Dinner was about to be served. Sitting on his balcony on the 25th floor, Robert Laing stirred the bright embers of the fire he had lit from pages of a telephone directory. The flames illuminated the handsome shoulders and thorax of the alsatian roasting on its spit. Laing fanned the flames, hoping that Alice and Eleanor Powell, lying together in his sister's bed, would appreciate all he had done. He methodically basted the dark skin of the alsatian, which he had stuffed with garlic and herbs.
"One rule in life," he murmured to himself. "If you can smell garlic, everything is all right."
For the moment, at least, everything was highly satisfactory. The alsatian was almost cooked, and a large meal would do the women good. Both had become querulous recently as a result of the shortage of food, and had been too tired to appreciate Laing's skill and courage in capturing the dog, let alone the exhausting task of skinning and disembowelling this huge animal. They had even complained about its nervous whimpering as Laing turned the pages of an advanced cookery book he had found in a nearby apartment. Laing had debated for some time how best to cook the dog. From the extent of its shivering and whining, the problem had communicated itself to the alsatian, as if it was aware that it was one of the last animals in the high-rise and for that reason alone merited a major culinary effort.
The thought of the weeks of hunger to come momentarily unsettled Laing, and he fed more sheets of paper into the balcony fire. Perhaps there was game to be found on the lower levels, though Laing never ventured below the 20th floor. The stench from the swimming-pool on the 10th floor was too disturbing, and reached up every ventilation flue and elevator shaft. Laing had descended to the lower levels only once during the previous month, when he had briefly played Samaritan to Anthony Royal.
Laing had found the dying architect while chopping firewood in the 25th-floor lobby. As he pulled an antique dressing-table from the disused barricade, Royal had fallen through the gap, almost knocking Laing to the floor. A small wound had opened Royal's chest, covering his white jacket with huge bloodstains in the outline of his hands, as if he had tried to identify himself with these imprints of his own death to come. He was clearly on his last legs, eyes unfocused, the bones of his forehead cutting through the over-stretched skin. Somehow he had managed to descend all the way from the 40th floor. Rambling continually, he stumbled down the staircase, partly supported by Laing, until they reached the loth floor. As they stepped on to the shopping mall the stench of rotting flesh hung over the deserted counters of the supermarket, and at first Laing assumed that a concealed meat-store had burst open and begun to putrefy. Appetite keening, he had been about to drop Royal and head off in search of food.
But Royal, eyes almost closed, one hand gripping Laing's shoulder, pointed towards the swimming-pool.
In the yellow light reflected off the greasy tiles, the long tank of the bone-pit stretched in front of them. The water had long since drained away, but the sloping floor was covered with the skulls, bones and dismembered limbs of dozens of corpses. Tangled together where they had been flung, they lay about like the tenants of a crowded beach visited by a sudden holocaust.
Disturbed less by the sight of these mutilated bodies-residents who had died of old age or disease and then been attacked by wild dogs, Laing assumed-than by the stench, Laing turned away. Royal, who had clung so fiercely to him during their descent of the building, no longer needed him, and dragged himself away along the line of changing cubicles. When Laing last saw him, he was moving towards the steps at the shallow end of the swimming-pool, as if hoping to find a seat for himself on this terminal slope.


Laing crouched over the fire, testing the hind-quarters of the alsatian with a skewer. He shivered in the cold air flowing up the face of the high-rise, with an effort repressing his memory of the bone-pit. At times he suspected that some of the residents had reverted to cannibalism-the flesh had been stripped with a surgeon's skill from many of the corpses. The lower-level residents, under constant pressure and discrimination, had probably given in to necessity.
"Robert...! What are you doing...?" Alice's querulous voice roused Laing from his reverie. Wiping his hands on his apron, he hurried into the bedroom.
"It's all right-dinner is nearly ready."
He spoke in the reassuring, childlike voice he had used during his hospital training with the duller of his child patients, a tone at variance with the intelligent and bored gaze of the two women in the bed.
"You're filling the place with smoke," Eleanor told him. "Are you sending up signals again?"
"No... it's the telephone directories. The paper must be made of plastic."
Alice shook her head wearily. "What about Eleanor's batteries? You promised to find her some. She's got to start reviewing again."
"Yes, I know..." Laing looked down at the blank screen of the portable television set sitting on the floor beside Eleanor. He felt stumped for an answer-despite all his efforts, the last of the batteries had been used.
Eleanor stared at him severely. She had opened the wound on her wrist and was coyly exposing it to the cat watching with interest from the far side of the room. "We've been discussing whether you should move to another apartment."
"What?" Unsure whether the pantomime had become serious, Laing laughed delightedly, excited all the more when Eleanor refused to let her customary slow smile cross her mouth. The two women lay side by side, so close that they seemed to be merging into each other. At intervals throughout the day he brought them their food, but he was never sure exactly whose bodily needs and functions he was satisfying. They had moved into the same bed for warmth and security, but really, Laing suspected, so that they could synchronize their supervision over him. They knew that they were dependent on Laing. Despite the "pantomime" their behaviour was entirely geared to meeting Laing's private needs in return for his attention to the business of their physical survival. The exchange suited Laing admirably, just as it suited him to have them in bed together-he was faced with only one set of wheedling demands, one repertory of neurotic games.
He liked to see Eleanor's old spirit emerge. Both women suffered seriously from malnutrition, and it encouraged him when they were well enough to play their parts in this loosely evolving pantomime, treating him like two governesses in a rich man's manage, teasing a wayward and introspective child. At times Laing liked to carry the game to its logical conclusion, and imagine that it was the two women who were in charge, and that they despised him totally. This ultimate role had helped him on one occasion, when a marauding band of women led by Mrs Wilder had entered the apartment. Seeing Laing being abused, and assuming him to be Eleanor's and Alice's prisoner, they had left. On the other hand, perhaps they understood all too well what was really taking place.
Whatever the answer, Laing was free for the time being to live within this intimate family circle, the first he had known since his childhood. The situation allowed him ample freedom to explore himself, and the strong element of unpredictability kept everyone alert. Although he might wheedle at their breast he could easily become vicious. The women admired him for this. A substantial number of morphine ampoules were left, and he planned to introduce the two women to this heady elixir. Their addiction would tilt the balance of authority in his direction again, and increase their dependence on him. Ironically, it was here, in the high-rise, that he had found his first patients.
Later, after he had carved the dog and served generous but not excessive portions to the two women, Laing thought about his good fortune as he sat on the balcony with his back to the railing. Above all, now, it no longer mattered how he behaved, what wayward impulses he gave way to, or which perverse pathways he chose to follow. He was sorry that Royal had died, as he owed the architect a debt of gratitude for having helped to design the high-rise and make all this possible. It was strange that Royal had felt any guilt before his death.
Laing waved reassuringly to the two women, who sat on the mattress with the tray across their knees, eating from the same plate. Laing finished the dark, garlic-flavoured meat, and looked up at the face of the high-rise. All the floors were in darkness, and he felt happy at this. His affection for the two women was real, like his pride in keeping them alive, but this in no way interfered with his new-found freedom.
On the whole, life in the high-rise had been kind to him. To an increasing extent, everything was returning to normal. Laing had begun to think again of the medical school. He might well pay a visit to the physiology laboratory the next day, and perhaps take a supervision. First, though, he would clean up. He had noticed two women neighbours sweeping the corridor. It might even be possible to get an elevator working. Perhaps he would take over a second apartment, dismantle the barricades and begin to refurnish it. Laing thought of Eleanor's threat to banish him. He toyed with the notion, feeling an illicit thrill of pleasure at the prospect. He would have to think of something with which to win their favour again.
However, all this, like the morphine he would give them in increasing doses, was only a beginning, trivial rehearsals for the real excitements to come. Feeling these gather within him, Laing leaned against the railing.
Dusk had settled, and the embers of the fire glowed in the darkness. The silhouette of the large dog on the spit resembled the flying figure of a mutilated man, soaring with immense energy across the night sky, embers glowing with the fire of jewels in his skin.
Laing looked out at the high-rise four hundred yards away. A temporary power failure had occurred, and on the 7th floor all the lights were out. Already torch-beams were moving about in the darkness, as the residents made their first confused attempts to discover where they were. Laing watched them contentedly, ready to welcome them to their new world.

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