Read High-Rise Online

Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #prose_contemporary

High-Rise (7 page)

"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.
5. The Vertical City
Whatever plans he might devise for his ascent, whatever route to the summit, it was soon obvious to Wilder that at its present rate of erosion little of the high-rise would be left. Almost everything possible was going wrong with the services. He helped Helen straighten the apartment, and tried to jerk some sense of vitality into his dormant family by drawing the blinds and moving noisily around the rooms.
Wilder found it difficult to revive them. At five-minute intervals the air-conditioning ceased to work, and in the warm summer weather the apartment was heavy with stagnant air. Wilder noticed that he had already begun to accept the foetid atmosphere as normal. Helen told him that she had heard a rumour from the other residents that dog excrement had been deliberately dropped into the air-conditioning flues by the upper-level tenants. Strong winds circulated around the open plazas of the development project, buffeting the lower floors of the apartment building as they swirled through the concrete legs. Wilder opened the windows, hoping for some fresh air, but the apartment soon filled with dust and powdered cement. The ashy film already covered the tops of cupboards and bookshelves.
By the late afternoon the residents began to return from their offices. The elevators were noisy and overcrowded. Three of them were now out of order, and the remainder were jammed with impatient tenants trying to reach their floors. From the open door of his apartment Wilder watched his neighbours jostle each other aggressively like bad-tempered miners emerging from their pit-cages. They strode past him, briefcases and handbags wielded like the instruments of an over-nervous body armour.
On an impulse Wilder decided to test his rights of free passage around the building, and his access to all its services, particularly the swimming-pool on the 35th floor and the children's sculpture-garden on the observation roof. Taking his camera, he set out for the roof with the older of his two sons. However, he soon found that the high-speed elevators were either out of order, under repair, or kept permanently at the top floors with their doors jammed open. The only access to them was through the private outside entrance to which Wilder did not have a key.
All the more determined now to reach the roof, Wilder waited for one of the intermediate elevators which would carry them as far as the 35th floor. When it arrived he pushed his way into the crowded cabin, surrounded by passengers who stared down at Wilder's six-year-old son with unfeigned hostility. At the 23rd floor the elevator refused to move any further. The passengers scrummaged their way out, drumming their briefcases against the closed doors of the elevators in what seemed to be a ritual display of temper.
Wilder set off up the stairs, carrying his small son in his arms. With his powerful physique, he was strong enough to climb all the way to the roof. Two floors above, however, the staircase was blocked by a group of local residents-among them the offensive young orthodontic surgeon who was Robert Laing's neighbour-trying to free a garbage-disposal chute. Suspicious that they might be tampering with the air-conditioning ducts, Wilder pushed through them, but was briskly shouldered aside by a man he recognized as a newsreader for a rival television company.
"This staircase is closed, Wilder! Can't you get the point?"
"What?" Wilder was amazed by this effrontery. "How do you mean?"
What are you doing up here, anyway?"
The two men squared up to each other. Amused by the announcer's aggressive manner, Wilder lifted the camera as if to film his florid face. When Crosland waved him away imperiously, Wilder was tempted to knock the man down. Not wishing to upset his son, who was nervous enough already in this harsh atmosphere, he retreated to the elevator and returned to the lower floors.
The confrontation, however minor, had unsettled Wilder. Ignoring Helen, he prowled around the apartment, swinging the camera to and fro. He felt excited in a confused way, partly by his plans for the documentary, but also by the growing atmosphere of collision and hostility.
From the balcony he watched the huge, Alcatraz blocks of the nearby high-rises. The material about these buildings, visual and sociological, was almost limitless. They would film the exteriors from a helicopter, and from the nearest block four hundred yards away-in his mind's eye he could already see a long, sixty-second zoom, slowly moving from the whole building in frame to a close-up of a single apartment, one cell in this nightmare termitary.
The first half of the programme would examine life in the high-rise in terms of its design errors and minor irritations, while the remainder would then look at the psychology of living in a community of two thousand people boxed up into the sky-everything from the incidence of crime, divorce and sexual misdemeanours to the turnover of residents, their health, the frequency of insomnia and other psychosomatic disorders. All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants.
The psychology of high-rise life had been exposed with damning results. The absence of humour, for example, had always struck Wilder as the single most significant feature-all research by investigators confirmed that the tenants of high-rises made no jokes about them. In a strict sense, life there was "eventless". On the basis of his own experience, Wilder was convinced that the high-rise apartment was an insufficiently flexible shell to provide the kind of home which encouraged activities, as distinct from somewhere to eat and sleep. Living in high-rises required a special type of behaviour, one that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad. A psychotic would have a ball here, Wilder reflected. Vandalism had plagued these slab and tower blocks since their inception. Every torn-out piece of telephone equipment, every handle wrenched off a fire safety door, every kicked-in electricity meter represented a stand against de-cerebration.

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