Read High-Rise Online

Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #prose_contemporary

High-Rise (8 page)

What angered Wilder most of all about life in the apartment building was the way in which an apparently homogeneous collection of high-income professional people had split into three distinct and hostile camps. The old social sub-divisions, based on power, capital and self-interest, had re-asserted themselves here as anywhere else.
In effect, the high-rise had already divided itself into the three classical social groups, its lower, middle and upper classes. The 10th-floor shopping mall formed a clear boundary between the lower nine floors, with their "proletariat" of film technicians, air-hostesses and the like, and the middle section of the high-rise, which extended from the 10th floor to the swimming-pool and restaurant deck on the 35th. This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions-the doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists who worked, not for themselves, but for medical institutes and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second best.
Above them, on the top five floors of the high-rise, was its upper class, the discreet oligarchy of minor tycoons and entrepreneurs, television actresses and careerist academics, with their high-speed elevators and superior services, their carpeted staircases. It was they who set the pace of the building. It was their complaints which were acted upon first, and it was they who subtly dominated life within the high-rise, deciding when the children could use the swimming-pools and roof garden, the menus in the restaurant and the high charges that kept out almost everyone but themselves. Above all, it was their subtle patronage that kept the middle ranks in line, this constantly dangling carrot of friendship and approval.
The thought of these exclusive residents, as high above him in their top-floor redoubts as any feudal lord above a serf, filled Wilder with a growing sense of impatience and resentment. However, it was difficult to organize any kind of counter-attack. It would be easy enough to play the populist leader and become the spokesman of his neighbours on the lower floors, but they lacked any cohesion or self-interest; they would be no match for the well-disciplined professional people in the central section of the apartment building. There was a latent easy-goingness about them, an inclination to tolerate an undue amount of interference before simply packing up and moving on. In short, their territorial instinct, in its psychological and social senses, had atrophied to the point where they were ripe for exploitation.
To rally his neighbours Wilder needed something that would give them a strong feeling of identity. The television documentary would do this perfectly and in terms, moreover, which they could understand. The documentary would dramatize all their resentments, and expose the way in which the services and facilities were being abused by the upper-level tenants. It might even be necessary to foment trouble surreptitiously, to exaggerate the tensions present in the high-rise.
However, as Wilder soon discovered, the shape of his documentary was already being determined.


Fired by his resolve to fight back, Wilder decided to give his wife and children a break from his ceaseless pacing. The air-conditioning now worked for only five minutes in each hour, and by dusk the apartment was stuffy and humid. The noise of over-loud conversations and record-players at full volume reverberated off the balconies above them. Helen Wilder moved along the already closed windows, her small hands pressed numbly against the latches as if trying to push away the night.
Too preoccupied to help her, Wilder set off with a towel and swimming trunks to the pool on the 10th floor. A few telephone calls to his neighbours on the lower floors had confirmed that they were keen to take part in the documentary, but Wilder needed participants from the upper and middle levels of the high-rise.
The out-of-order elevators had still not been repaired, and Wilder took to the stairs. Sections of the staircase had already been turned into a garbage-well by the residents above. Broken glass littered the steps, cutting his shoes.
The shopping mall was crowded with people, milling about and talking at the tops of their voices as if waiting for a political rally to start. Usually deserted at this hour, the swimming-pool was packed with residents playing the fool in the water, pushing each other off the tiled verge and splashing the changing stalls. The attendant had gone, abandoning his booth, and already the pool was beginning to look neglected, discarded towels lying in the gutters.
In the showers Wilder recognized Robert Laing. Although the doctor turned his back on him Wilder ignored the rebuff and stood under the next spray. The two men spoke briefly but in non-committal terms. Wilder had always found Laing good company, with his keen eye for any passing young woman, but today he was being standoffish. Like everyone else he had been affected by the atmosphere of confrontation.
"Have the police arrived yet?" Wilder asked above the noise as they walked to the diving-boards.
"No-are you expecting them?" Laing seemed genuinely surprised.
"They'll want to question the witnesses. What happened, in fact? Was he pushed? His wife looks hefty enough-perhaps she wanted a quick divorce?"
Laing smiled patiently, as if this remark in doubtful taste was all he expected of Wilder. His sharp eyes were deliberately vague, and remained closed to any probing. "I know nothing about the accident, Wilder. It may have been suicide, I suppose. Are you personally concerned?"
"Aren't you, Laing? It's odd that a man can fall from a window forty floors above the ground without there being any kind of investigation..."
Laing stepped on to the diving board. His body was unusually well muscled, Wilder noticed, almost as if he had been taking a good deal of recent exercise, doing dozens of push-ups.
Laing waited for a clear space in the crowded water. "I think we can rely on his neighbours to look after everything."
Wilder lifted his voice. "I've begun planning the television documentary-his death would make a good starting point."
Laing looked down at Wilder with sudden interest. He shook his head firmly. "I'd forget all about it-if I were you, Wilder." He stepped to the end of the board, sprang twice and made a hard, neat dive into the yellowing water.
Swimming by himself at the shallow end of the pool, Wilder watched Laing and his party of friends playing about in the deep end. Previously Wilder would have joined them, particularly as there were two attractive women in the group-Charlotte Melville, whom he had not seen for several days about their projected parents' association, and the tyro alcoholic Eleanor Powell. Wilder had obviously been excluded. Laing's pointed use of his surname marked the distance between them, like his vagueness about the dead jeweller, and his sidestepping of the television documentary, in which he had once been keenly interested-if anything, Laing's approval had inspired Wilder to develop the idea into a provisional treatment. Presumably Laing, with his excessive need for privacy, had no wish to see the collective folly of the residents, their childish squabbles and jealousies, exposed on the nation's television screens.
Or was there some other impulse at work-a need to shut away, most of all from oneself, any realization of what was actually happening in the high-rise, so that events there could follow their own logic and get even more out of hand? For all his own professed enthusiasm about the documentary, Wilder knew that he had never discussed it with anyone who did not live inside the apartment building. Even Helen, talking to her mother that afternoon on the telephone, had said vaguely, "Everything's fine. There's some slight trouble with the air-conditioning, but it's being fixed."
This growing defiance of reality no longer surprised Wilder. The decision that the chaos within the high-rise was a matter for the residents themselves explained the mystery of the dead jeweller. At least a thousand people must have seen the body-Wilder remembered stepping on to the balcony and being startled, not by the sight of the dead man, but by the huge audience reaching up to the sky. Had anyone notified the police? He had taken it for granted, but now he was less sure. Wilder found it hard to believe that this sophisticated and self-important man would commit suicide. Yet no one was in the least concerned, accepting the possibility of murder in the same way that the swimmers in the pool accepted the wine bottles and beer cans rolling around the tiled floor under their feet.


During the evening, Wilder's speculations took second place to the struggle to preserve his sanity. After settling the two boys in their bedroom, he and his wife sat down to dinner, only to find that a sudden electricity failure had plunged them into darkness. Sitting opposite each other at the dining-room table, they listened to the continuous noise from the corridor, their neighbours arguing in the elevator lobby, transistors blaring through open apartment doors.
Helen began to laugh, relaxing for the first time in weeks. "Dick, it's a huge children's party that's got out of hand." She reached out to calm Wilder. In the faint light that crossed the room from the nearby high-rise her slim face had an almost unreal calm, as if she no longer felt herself to be part of the events taking place around her.
Restraining his temper, Wilder hunched heavily in the darkness over the table. He was tempted more than once to plunge his fist into his soup. When the lights returned he tried to telephone the building manager, but the switchboard was jammed with calls. At last a recorded voice told him that the manager had fallen ill, and that all complaints would be played through and noted for future attention.
"My God, he's actually going to listen to all these tapes-there must be miles of them..."
"Are you sure?" Helen was giggling to herself. "Perhaps no one else minds. You're the only one."
The tampering with the electricity system had affected the air-conditioning. Dust was spurting from the vents in the walls. Exasperated, Wilder drove his fists together. Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them. Wilder tried to close the grilles, but within minutes they were forced to take refuge on the balcony. Their neighbours were crowded against their railings, craning up at the roof as if hoping to catch sight of those responsible.
Leaving his wife, who was wandering light-headedly around the apartment and smiling at the spurting dust, Wilder went out into the corridor. All the elevators were stationary in the upper section of the building. A large group of his neighbours had gathered in the elevator lobby, pounding rhythmically on the doors and complaining about various provocative acts by the residents on the floors above.
Wilder pushed his way towards the centre, where two airline pilots were standing on a lobby sofa and selecting the members of a raiding party. Wilder waited his turn, trying to catch their attention, until he realized from the excited talk around him that their mission consisted solely of going up to the 35th floor and publicly urinating into the water.
Wilder was about to argue with them, warning that a childish act of this kind would be counter-productive. Until they were organized the notion of a punitive expedition was absurd, as they were far too exposed to retaliation. However, at the last moment he turned away. He stood by the doors to the staircase, aware that he no longer felt committed to this crowd of impulsive tenants egging each other on into a futile exercise, Their real opponent was not the hierarchy of residents in the heights far above them, but the image of the building in their own minds, the multiplying layers of concrete that anchored them to the floor.
A cheer went up, followed by a chorus of catcalls. An elevator was at last descending from the 35th floor, the indicator numerals flashing from right to left. While it approached, Wilder thought of Helen and the two boys-he knew already that his decision to dissociate himself from his neighbours had nothing to do with any feelings of concern for his wife and children.
The elevator reached the 2nd floor and stopped. As the doors opened there was a sudden hush. Lying on the floor of the cabin was the barely conscious figure of one of Wilder's neighbours, a homosexual air-traffic controller who dined regularly in the 35th-floor restaurant. He turned his bruised face away from the watching crowd and tried to button the shirt torn from his chest. Seeing him clearly as the crowd stepped back, awed by this evidence of open violence. Wilder heard someone say that two more floors, the 5th and 8th, were now in darkness.
6. Danger in the Streets of the Sky
All day Richard Wilder had been preparing for his ascent. After the noise-filled night, which he had spent calming his sons and giggling wife, Wilder left for the television studios. Once there, he cancelled his appointments and told his secretary that he would be away for the next few days. While he spoke, Wilder was barely aware of this puzzled young woman or his curious colleagues in the nearby offices-he had shaved only the left side of his face, and had not changed his clothes since the previous day. Tired out, he briefly fell asleep at his desk, watched by his secretary as he slumped snoring across his unread correspondence. After no more than an hour at the studios, he packed his briefcase and returned to the high-rise.
For Wilder, this brief period away from the apartment building was almost dreamlike in its unreality. He left his car in the parking-lot without locking it and walked towards the entrance, a growing sense of relief coming over him. Even the debris scattered at the foot of the building, the empty bottles and garbage-stained cars with their broken windscreens, in a strange way merely reinforced his conviction that the only real events in his life were those taking place within the high-rise.
Although it was after eleven o'clock, Helen and the children were still asleep. A film of white dust covered the furniture in the lounge and bedrooms, as if he had returned to the apartment and its three sleepers after an immense period of time had condensed around them like a stone frost. Wilder had blocked the air-conditioning vents during the night, and the apartment was without sound or movement. Wilder looked down at his wife, lying on the bed surrounded by the children's books she was reviewing. Aware that he would be leaving her in a few hours, he regretted that she was too weak to come with him. They might have climbed the high-rise together.

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