HIGH RISE by J. G. Ballard High-Rise is a masterfully enacted vision

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HIGH RISE
by J. G. Ballard
flyleaf:
A new forty-story luxury apartment building is both location and protagonist of this gripping and
unforgettable novel. With amenities that include its own movie theater, swimming pools, supermarket, and
elementary school, the building offers a self-contained world of comfortable living for its 2,000 tenants.
It is only with full occupancy that the residents’ repressed antagonisms begin to break through the
surface, at first in such half-playful occurrences as the dropping of debris from the top floors onto the
balconies below. Then, in rapid retallatory succession, violence breaks out in the halls and stairways,
children are abused, a dog is drowned in a swimming pool, and a rich jeweler is flung to his death from
his penthouse. Tenants separate into three rival groups relative to the level of their apartments, and
inexorably all are carried back into a kind of stone-age primitivism. We follow about a dozen lives
through this terrifying process—in particular, the architect who designed the building and lives on its top
floor, a middle-echelon doctor who first realizes what is going on and gives himself up to its new logic,
and a TV producer from the bottom floor who determines to fight his way to the top. By a strange
paradox they continue with their lives in the world outside as if nothing is amiss, clinging all the while to
the hope of making sense of the technological landscape they have helped to create, even as it crumbles
around them.
Lord of the Flies ,
High-Rise is a masterfully
enacted vision of human
violence and regression, a
novel that will reverberate in
the minds of its readers long
Reminiscent of William Golding’s
Page 1
after its shocking conclusion.
J. G. BALLARD has
published many novels and
short stories to critical acclaim
here and abroad. His most
recent titles include The
Drowned World , The Atrocity
Exhibit , Love and Napalm ,
and Crash .
Jacket illustration by Carlos
Ochagavia
Holt, Rinehart and Winston
383 Madison Avenue
New York,New York10017
Page 2
Copyright © 1975 by J. G. Ballard
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
First published in theUnited Statesin 1977. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
ISBN 0-03-020651-0
Printed in theUnited States of America
Contents
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
Critical Mass
Party Time
Death of a Resident
Up!
TheVerticalCity
Danger in the Streets of the Sky
Preparations for Departure
The Predatory Birds
Into the Drop Zone
The DrainedLake
Punitive Expeditions
Towards theSummit
Body Markings
Final Triumph
The Evening’s Entertainment
A Happy Arrangement
TheLakesidePavilion
TheBloodGarden
Night Games
1/Critical Mass
Page 3
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had
taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything
had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond
which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension. With its forty floors and thousand
apartments, its supermarket and swimming-pools, bank and junior school—all in effect abandoned in the
sky—the high-rise offered more than enough opportunities for violence and confrontation. Certainly his
own studio apartment on the 25thfloor was the last place Laing would have chosen as an early
skirmish-ground. This over-priced cell, slotted almost at random into the cliff face of the apartment
building, he had bought after his divorce specifically for its peace, quiet and anonymity. Curiously enough,
despite all Laing’s efforts to detach himself from his two thousand neighbours and the regime of trivial
disputes and irritations that provided their only corporate life, it was here if anywhere that the first
significant event had taken place—on this balcony where he now squatted beside a fire of telephone
directories, eating the roast hind-quarter of the alsatian before setting off to his lecture at the medical
school.
While preparing breakfast soon aftereleven o’clockone Saturday morning three months earlier, Dr Laing
was startled by an explosion on the balcony outside his living-room. A bottle of sparkling wine had fallen
from a floor fifty feet above, ricocheted off an awning as it hurtled downwards, and burst across the tiled
balcony floor.
The living-room carpet was speckled with foam and broken glass. Laing stood in his bare feet among the
sharp fragments, watching the agitated wine seethe across the cracked tiles. High above him, on the
31stfloor, a party was in progress. He could hear the sounds of deliberately over-animated chatter, the
aggressive blare of a record-player. Presumably the bottle had been knocked over the rail by a
boisterous guest. Needless to say, no one at the party was in the least concerned about the ultimate
destination of this missile—but as Laing had already discovered, people in high-rises tended not to care
about tenants more than two floors below them.
Trying to identify the apartment, Laing stepped across the spreading pool of cold froth. Sitting there, he
might easily have found himself with the longest hangover in the world. He leaned out over the rail and
peered up at the face of the building, carefully counting the balconies. As usual, though, the dimensions of
the forty-storey block made his head reel. Lowering his eyes to the tiled floor, he steadied himself against
the door pillar. The immense volume of open space that separated the building from the neighbouring
high-rise a quarter of a mile away unsettled his sense of balance. At times he felt that he was living in the
gondola of a ferris wheel permanently suspended three hundred feet above the ground.
Nonetheless, Laing was still exhilarated by the high-rise, one of five identical units in the development
project and the first to be completed and occupied. Together they were set in a mile-square area of
abandoned dockland and warehousing along the north bank of the river. The five high-rises stood on the
eastern perimeter of the project, looking out across an ornamental lake—at present an empty concrete
basin surrounded by parking-lots and construction equipment. On the opposite shore stood the recently
completed concert-hall, with Laing’s medical school and the new television studios on either side. The
massive scale of the glass and concrete architecture, and its striking situation on a bend of the river,
sharply separated the development project from the run-down areas around it, decaying
nineteenth-century terraced houses and empty factories already zoned for reclamation.
For all the proximity of the City two miles away to the west along the river, the office buildings of central
Londonbelonged to a different world, in time as well as space. Their glass curtain-walling and
telecommunication aerials were obscured by the traffic smog, blurring Laing’s memories of the past. Six
months earlier, when he had sold the lease of hisChelseahouse and moved to the security of the high-rise,
he had travelled forward fifty years in time, away from crowded streets, traffic hold-ups, rush-hour
journeys on the Underground to student supervisions in a shared office in the old teaching hospital.
Here, on the other hand, the dimensions of his life were space, light and the pleasures of a subtle kind of
Page 4
anonymity. The drive to the physiology department of the medical school took him five minutes, and apart
from this single excursion Laing’s life in the high-rise was as self-contained as the building itself. In effect,
the apartment block was a small vertical city, its two thousand inhabitants boxed up into the sky. The
tenants corporately owned the building, which they administered themselves through a resident manager
and his staff.
For all its size, the high-rise contained an impressive range of services. The entire 10thfloor was given
over to a wide concourse, as large as an aircraft carrier’s flight-deck, which contained a supermarket,
bank and hairdressing salon, a swimming-pool and gymnasium, a well-stocked liquor store and a junior
school for the few young children in the block. High above Laing, on the 35thfloor, was a second, smaller
swimming-pool, a sauna and a restaurant. Delighted by this glut of conveniences, Laing made less and
less effort to leave the building. He unpacked his record collection and played himself into his new life,
sitting on his balcony and gazing across the parking-lots and concrete plazas below him. Although the
apartment was no higher than the 25thfloor, he felt for the first time that he was looking down at the sky,
rather than up at it. Each day the towers of centralLondonseemed slightly more distant, the landscape of
an abandoned planet receding slowly from his mind. By contrast with the calm and unencumbered
geometry of the concert-hall and television studios below him, the ragged skyline of the city resembled
the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis.
The apartment had been expensive, its studio living-room and single bedroom, kitchen and bathroom
dovetailed into each other to minimize space and eliminate internal corridors. To his sister Alice
Frobisher, who lived with her publisher husband in a larger apartment three floors below, Laing had
remarked, “The architect must have spent his formative years in a space capsule—I’m surprised the walls
don’t curve . . .”
At first Laing found something alienating about the concrete landscape of the project—an architecture
designed for war, on the unconscious level if no other. After all the tensions of his divorce, the last thing
he wanted to look out on each morning was a row of concrete bunkers.
However,Alicesoon convinced him of the intangible appeal of life in a luxury high-rise. Seven years older
than Laing, she made a shrewd assessment of her brother’s needs in the months after his divorce. She
stressed the efficiency of the building’s services, the total privacy. “You could be alone here, in an empty
that , Robert.” She
added, illogically, “Besides,
it’s full of the kind of people
you ought to meet.”
Here she was making a point
that had not escaped Laing
during his inspection visits.
building—think of
Page 5
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
Page 6
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
Page 7
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
Page 8
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.
Page 9
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
Page 10
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 25thfloor, 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 atAlice’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 31stfloor. 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 atAlice’s party the
previous evening he had accepted an invitation to cocktails. Thankfully,Charlottehad 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
Page 11
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 lavishmidnightgala 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,Charlottehad 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 metCharlottein 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.
Atnoon, when he arrived atCharlotte’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 2ndfloor 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 unsettledAlice, 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 fromCharlotte, the noise of the party came down from
the bright air, as if the sky itself had been wired for sound.Charlottepointed 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 31stfloor.”
“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
Charlotteshrugged 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.
Page 12
“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,”Charlotteexplained. “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 knowCharlottehas 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 toCharlotte. 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.
As he guessed, even this apparently casual meeting inCharlotte’s apartment had been set up to test his
attitude to the upper-level residents who were trying to exclude children from the 35th-floor
swimming-pool.
Page 13
“The terms of our leases guarantee us equal access to all facilities,”Charlotteexplained. “We’ve decided
to set up a parents’ action group.”
“Doesn’t that leave me out ?”
“We need a doctor on the committee. The paediatric argument would come much more forcefully from
you, Robert.”
“Well, perhaps . . .” Laing hesitated to commit himself. Before he knew it, he would be a character in a
highly charged television documentary, or taking part in a sit-in outside the office of the building manager.
Reluctant at this stage to be snared into an inter-floor wrangle, Laing stood up and excused himself. As
he left,Charlottehad equipped herself with a checklist of grievances. Sitting beside Wilder, she began to
tick off the complaints to be placed before the building manager, like a conscientious teacher preparing
the syllabus for the next term.
When Laing returned to his apartment, the party on the 31stfloor had ended. He stood on his balcony in
the silence, enjoying the magnificent play of light across the neighbouring block four hundred yards away.
The building had just been completed, and by coincidence the first tenants were arriving on the very
morning that the last had moved into his own block. A furniture moving van was backing into the entrance
to the freight elevator, and the carpets and stereo-speakers, dressing-tables and bedside lamps would
soon be carried up the elevator shaft to form the elements of a private world.
Thinking of the rush of pleasure and excitement which the new tenants would feel as they gazed out for
the first time from their aerial ledge on the cliff face, Laing contrasted it with the conversation he had just
heard between Wilder and Charlotte Melville. However reluctantly, he now had to accept something he
had been trying to repress—that the previous six months had been a period of continuous bickering
among his neighbours, of trivial disputes over the faulty elevators and air-conditioning, inexplicable
electrical failures, noise, competition for parking space and, in short, that host of minor defects which the
architects were supposed specifically to have designed out of these over-priced apartments. The
underlying tensions among the residents were remarkably strong, damped down partly by the civilized
tone of the building, and partly by the obvious need to make this huge apartment block a success.
Laing remembered a minor but unpleasant incident that had taken place the previous afternoon on the
loth-floor shopping concourse. As he waited to cash a cheque at the bank an altercation was going on
outside the doors of the swimming-pool. A group of children, still wet from the water, were backing
away from the imposing figure of a cost-accountant from the 17thfloor. Facing him in this unequal contest
was Helen Wilder. Her husband’s pugnacity had long since drained any self-confidence from her.
Nervously trying to control the children, she listened stoically to the accountant’s reprimand, now and
then making some weak retort.
Leaving the bank counter, Laing walked towards them, past the crowded check-out points of the
supermarket and the lines of women under the driers in the hair-dressing salon. As he stood beside Mrs
Wilder, waiting until she recognized him, he gathered that the accountant was complaining that her
children, not for the first time, had been urinating in the pool.
Laing briefly interceded, but the accountant slammed away through the swing doors, confident that he
had sufficiently intimidated Mrs Wilder to drive her brood of children away for ever.
“Thanks for taking my side—Richard was supposed to be here.” She picked a damp thread of hair out
of her eyes. “It’s becoming impossible—we arrange set hours for the children but the adults come
anyway.” She took Laing’s arm and squinted nervously across the crowded concourse. “Do you mind
walking me back to the elevator ? It must sound rather paranoid, but I’m becoming obsessed with the
idea that one day we’ll be physically attacked . . .” She shuddered under her damp towel as she
propelled the children forward. “It’s almost as if these aren’t the people who really live here.”
During the afternoon Laing found himself thinking of this last remark of Helen Wilder’s. Absurd though it
sounded, the statement had a certain truth. Now and then his neighbours, the orthodontic surgeon and his
wife, stepped on to their balcony and frowned at Laing, as if disapproving of the relaxed way in which he
lay back in his reclining chair. Laing tried to visualize their life together, their hobbies, conversation, sexual
Page 14
acts. It was difficult to imagine any kind of domestic reality, as if the Steeles were a pair of secret agents
unconvincingly trying to establish a marital role. By contrast, Wilder was real enough, but hardly belonged
to the high-rise.
Laing lay back on his balcony, watching the dusk fall across the facades of the adjacent blocks. Their
size appeared to vary according to the play of light over their surfaces. Sometimes, when he returned
home in the evening from the medical school, he was convinced that the high-rise had managed to extend
itself during the day. Lifted on its concrete legs, the forty-storey block appeared to be even higher, as if a
group of off-duty construction workers from the television studios had casually added another floor. The
five apartment buildings on the eastern perimeter of the mile-square project together formed a massive
palisade that by dusk had already plunged the suburban streets behind them into darkness.
The high-rises seemed almost to challenge the sun itself—Anthony Royal and the architects who had
designed the complex could not have foreseen the drama of confrontation each morning between these
concrete slabs and the rising sun. It was only fitting that the sun first appeared between the legs of the
apartment blocks, raising itself over the horizon as if nervous of waking this line of giants. During the
morning, from his office on the top floor of the medical school, Laing would watch their shadows swing
across the parking-lots and empty plazas of the project, sluice-gates opening to admit the day. For all his
reservations, Laing was the first to concede that these huge buildings had won their attempt to colonize
the sky.
Soon after nine o’clock that evening, an electrical failure temporarily blacked out the 9th, 10thand
11thfloors. Looking back on this episode, Laing was surprised by the degree of confusion during the
fifteen minutes of the blackout. Some two hundred people were present on the 10thfloor concourse, and
many were injured in the stampede for the elevators and staircases. A number of absurd but unpleasant
altercations broke out in the darkness between those who wanted to descend to their apartments on the
lower levels and the residents from the upper floors who insisted on escaping upwards into the cooler
heights of the building. During the blackout two of the twenty elevators were put out of action. The
air-conditioning had been switched off, and a woman passenger trapped in an elevator between the
10thand nth floors became hysterical, possibly the victim of a minor sexual assault—the restoration of
light in due course revealed its crop of illicit liaisons flourishing in the benevolent conditions of total
darkness like a voracious plant species.
Laing was on his way to the gymnasium when the power failed. Uneager to join the mêlée on the
concourse, he waited in a deserted classroom of the junior school. Sitting alone at one of the children’s
miniature desks, surrounded by the dim outlines of their good-humoured drawings pinned to the walls, he
listened to their parents scuffling and shouting in the elevator lobby. When the lights returned he walked
out among the startled residents, and did his best to calm everyone down. He supervised the transfer of
the hysterical woman passenger from the elevator to a lobby sofa. The heavy-boned wife of a jeweller on
the 40thfloor, she clung powerfully to Laing’s arm, only releasing him when her husband appeared.
As the crowd of residents dispersed, their fingers punching the elevator destination buttons, Laing noticed
that two children had sheltered during the blackout in another of the classrooms. They were standing now
in the entrance to the swimming-pool, backing away defensively from the tall figure of the 17th-floor
cost-accountant. This self-appointed guardian of the water held a long-handled pool skimmer like a
bizarre weapon.
Angrily, Laing ran forward. But the children were not being driven from the pool. They stepped aside
when Laing approached. The accountant stood by the water’s edge, awkwardly reaching the skimmer
across the calm surface. At the deep end three swimmers, who had been treading water during the entire
blackout, were clambering over the side. One of them, he noticed without thinking, was Richard Wilder.
Laing took the handle of the skimmer. As the children watched, he helped the accountant extend it across
the water.
Floating in the centre of the pool was the drowned body of an Afghan hound.
Page 15
2/Party Time
During these days after the drowning of the dog, the air of over-excitement within the high-rise gradually
settled itself, but to Dr Laing this comparative calm was all the more ominous. The swimming-pool on the
10thfloor remained deserted, partly, Laing assumed, because everyone felt that the water was
contaminated by the dead Afghan. An almost palpable miasma hung over the slack water, as if the spirit
of the drowned beast was gathering to itself all the forces of revenge and retribution present within the
building.
On his way to the medical school a few mornings after the incident, Laing looked in at the 10th-floor
concourse. After booking a squash court for his weekly game that evening with Anthony Royal, he
walked towards the entrance of the swimming-pool. He remembered the panic and stampede during the
blackout. By contrast, the shopping mall was now almost empty, a single customer ordering his wines at
the liquor store. Laing pushed back the swing doors and strolled around the pool. The changing cubicles
were closed, the curtains drawn across the shower stalls. The official attendant, a retired physical-training
instructor, was absent from his booth behind the diving-boards. Evidently the profanation of his water
had been too much for him.
Laing stood by the tiled verge at the deep end, under the unvarying fluorescent light. Now and then, the
slight lateral movement of the building in the surrounding airstream sent a warning ripple across the flat
surface of the water, as if in its pelagic deeps an immense creature was stirring in its sleep. He
remembered helping the accountant to lift the Afghan from the water, and being surprised by its lightness.
With its glamorous plumage drenched by the chlorinated water, the dog had lain like a large stoat on the
coloured tiles. While they waited for the owner, a television actress on the 37thfloor, to come down and
collect the dog Laing examined it carefully. There were no external wounds or marks of restraint.
Conceivably it had strayed from its apartment into a passing elevator and emerged on to the shopping
concourse during the confusion of the power failure, fallen into the swimming-pool and died there of
exhaustion. But the explanation hardly fitted the facts. The blackout had lasted little more than fifteen
minutes, and a dog of this size was powerful enough to swim for hours. Besides, it could simply have
stood on its hind legs in the shallow end. But if it had been thrown into the pool, and held below the
water in the darkness by a strong swimmer . . .
Surprised by his own suspicions, Laing made a second circuit of the pool. Something convinced him that
the dog’s drowning had been a provocative act, intended to invite further retaliation in its turn. The
presence of the fifty or so dogs in the high-rise had long been a source of irritation. Almost all of them
were owned by residents on the top ten floors—just as, conversely, most of the fifty children lived in the
lower ten. Together the dogs formed a set of over-pampered pedigree pets whose owners were not
noticeably concerned for their fellow tenants’ comfort and privacy. The dogs barked around the
car-parks when they were walked in the evening, fouling the pathways between the cars. On more than
one occasion elevator doors were sprayed with urine. Laing had heard Helen Wilder complain that,
rather than use their five high-speed elevators which carried them from a separate entrance lobby directly
to the top floors, the dog-owners habitually transferred to the lower-level elevators, encouraging their
pets to use them as lavatories.
This rivalry between the dog-owners and the parents of small children had in a sense already polarized
the building. Between the upper and lower floors the central mass of apartments—roughly from the loth
floor to the 30th—formed a buffer state. During the brief interregnum after the dog’s drowning a kind of
knowing calm presided over the middle section of the high-rise, as if the residents had already realized
what was taking place within the building.
Page 16
Laing discovered this when he returned that evening from the medical school. By six o’clock the section
of the parking-lot reserved for the 20thto the 25thfloors would usually be full, forcing him to leave his car
in the visitors’ section three hundred yards from the building. Reasonably enough, the architects had
zoned the parking-lots so that the higher a resident’s apartment (and consequently the longer the journey
by elevator), the nearer he parked to the building. The residents from the lower floors had to walk
considerable distances to and from their cars each day—a sight not without its satisfaction, Laing had
noticed. Somehow the high-rise played into the hands of the most petty impulses.
That evening, however, as he reached the already crowded car-park, Laing was surprised by his fellow
tenants’ tolerant behaviour. He arrived at the same time as his neighbour Dr Steele. By rights they should
have raced each other for the last vacant place, and taken separate elevators to their floor. But tonight
each beckoned the other forward in a show of exaggerated gallantry and waited while the other parked.
They even walked together to the main entrance.
In the lobby a group of tenants stood outside the manager’s office, remonstrating noisily with his
secretary. The electrical supply system on the gth floor was still out of order, and at night the floor was in
darkness. Fortunately it was light until late in the summer evening, but the inconvenience to the fifty
residents on the floor was considerable. None of the appliances in their apartments would function, and
the limits of co-operation with their neighbours on the floors above and below had soon been reached.
Steele watched them unsympathetically. Although he was in his late twenties, his manner was already
securely middle-aged. Laing found himself fascinated by his immaculate centre parting, almost an orifice.
“They’re always complaining about something,” Steele confided to Laing as they stepped into an
elevator. “If it isn’t this, it’s that. They seem unwilling to accept that the services in a new building take
time to settle down.”
“Still, it must be a nuisance to have no power.”
Steele shook his head. “They persistently overload the master-fuses with their elaborate stereo-systems
and unnecessary appliances. Electronic baby-minders because the mothers are too lazy to get out of their
easy chairs, special mashers for their children’s food . . .”
Laing waited for the journey to end, already regretting his new-found solidarity with his neighbour. For
some reason, Steele made him nervous. Not for the first time, he wished he had purchased an apartment
above the 30thfloor. The high-speed elevators were bliss.
“The children here look well enough to me,” he remarked when they stepped out at the 25thfloor.
The surgeon held his elbow in a surprisingly powerful grip. He smiled reassuringly, flashing a mouth like a
miniature cathedral of polished ivory.
“Believe me, Laing. I see their teeth.”
The punitive tone in Steele’s voice, as if he were describing a traditionally feckless band of migrant
workers rather than his well-to-do neighbours, came as a surprise to Laing. He knew casually a few of
the 9thfloor residents—a sociologist who was a friend of Charlotte Melville’s, and an air-traffic controller
who played string trios with friends on the 25thfloor, an amusing and refined man to whom Laing often
talked as he carried his cello into the elevator. But distance lent disenchantment.
The extent of this separation of loyalties was brought home to Laing when he set off to play squash with
Anthony Royal. He took an elevator up to the 40thfloor and, as usual, arrived ten minutes early so that he
could go out on to the roof. The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for
this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built,
not for man, but for man’s absence.
Laing leaned against the parapet, shivering pleasantly in his sports-clothes. He shielded his eyes from the
strong air currents that rose off the face of the high-rise. The cluster of auditorium roofs, curving roadway
embankments and rectilinear curtain-walling formed an intriguing medley of geometries—less a habitable
architecture, he reflected, than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event.
Fifty feet away to Laing’s left a cocktail party was in progress. Two buffet tables covered with white
cloths had been laid with trays of canapés and glasses, and a waiter was serving drinks behind a portable
bar. Some thirty guests in evening dress stood about talking in small groups. For a few minutes Laing
Page 17
ignored them, absent-mindedly tapping his rackets case on the parapet, but something about the hard,
over-animated chatter made him turn. Several of the guests were looking in his direction, and Laing was
certain that they were talking about him. The party had moved nearer, and the closest guests were no
more than ten feet away. All were residents from the top three floors. Even more unusual was the
self-conscious formality of their dress. At none of the parties in the high-rise had Laing seen anyone
dressed in anything other than casual wear, yet here the men wore dinner-jackets and black ties, the
women floor-length evening dresses. They carried themselves in a purposeful way, as if this were less a
party than a planning conference.
Almost within arm’s reach, the immaculate figure of a well-to-do art dealer was squaring up to Laing, the
lapels of his dinner-jacket flexing like an over-worked bellows. On either side of him were the
middle-aged wives of a stock-exchange jobber and a society photographer, staring distastefully at
Laing’s white sports-clothes and sneakers.
Laing picked up his rackets case and towel bag, but his way to the staircase was blocked by the people
around him. The entire cocktail party had moved along the roof, and the waiter now stood alone between
the bar and the buffet tables.
Laing leaned against the parapet, for the first time conscious of the immense distance to the ground
below. He was encircled by a heavily breathing group of his fellow residents, so close that he could smell
the medley of expensive scents and after-shaves. He was curious as to what exactly they were going to
do, but at the same time was aware that at any moment a meaningless act of violence might occur.
“Dr Laing . . . Ladies, would you release the doctor?” At what seemed the last moment, a familiar figure
with adroit hands and a soft walk called out reassuringly. Laing recognized the jeweller whose hysterical
wife he had briefly examined during the power failure. As he greeted Laing the guests casually dispersed,
like a group of extras switched to another scene. Without thinking, they strolled back to their drinks and
canapés.
“Was it fortunate that I arrived?” The jeweller peered at Laing, as if puzzled by his presence in this
private domain. “You’re here to play squash with Anthony Royal? I’m afraid he’s decided to decline.”
He added, as much to himself as to Laing, “My wife should have been here. She was treated appallingly,
you know—they were like animals . . .”
Slightly shaken, Laing accompanied him to the stairway. He looked back at the cocktail party, with its
well-bred guests, uncertain whether he had imagined the imminent attack on him. After all, what could
they have actually done—hardly tossed him over the edge?
As he pondered this, he noticed a familiar pale-haired figure in a white safari-jacket standing with one
hand on the callisthenics machine in the penthouse overlooking the northern end of the roof. Resting at his
feet was Royal’s alsatian with its arctic coat, without doubt the premier dog in the high-rise. Making no
attempt to hide himself, Anthony Royal was watching Laing with a thoughtful gaze. As always, his
expression was an uneasy mixture of arrogance and defensiveness, as if he were all too aware of the
built-in flaws of this huge building he had helped to design, but was determined to outstare any criticism,
even at the price of theatrical gestures such as the alsatian and his white-hunter’s jacket. Although he was
over fifty, his shoulder-length fair hair made him look uncannily youthful, as if the cooler air at these great
heights had somehow preserved him from the ordinary processes of ageing. His bony forehead, still
marked by the scars of his accident, was tilted to one side, and he seemed to be checking that an
experiment he had set up had now been concluded.
Laing raised one hand and signalled to him as the jeweller ushered him briskly below, but Royal made no
reply. Why had he not cancelled their squash game by telephone ? For a moment Laing was certain that
Royal had deliberately let him come up to the roof, knowing that the party was in progress, simply out of
interest in the guests’ reactions and behaviour.
The next morning Laing rose early, eager to get on. He felt fresh and clear-headed, but without realizing
why he decided to take the day off. Promptly at nine, after pacing about for two hours, he telephoned his
secretary at the medical school and postponed that afternoon’s supervision. When she expressed regret
at Laing’s illness he brushed this aside. “It’s all right, I’m not ill. Something important has come up.”
Page 18
What? Puzzled by his own behaviour, Laing wandered around the small apartment. Charlotte Melville
was also at home. She was dressed for the office in a formal business suit, but made no attempt to leave.
She invited Laing over for coffee, but when he arrived an hour later she absent-mindedly handed him a
glass of sherry. His visit, Laing soon discovered, was a pretext for him to examine her son. The boy was
playing in his room, but according to Charlotte was not feeling well enough to go to the junior school on
the 10thfloor. Annoyingly, the young sister of an airline pilot’s wife on the 1stfloor had declined to
baby-sit.
“It’s a nuisance, she’s usually only too keen. I’ve relied on her for months. She sounded rather vague on
the phone, as if she was being evasive . . .”
Laing listened sympathetically, wondering whether he should volunteer to look after the child. But there
was no hint of this in Charlotte’s voice. Playing with the boy, Laing realized that there was nothing wrong
with him. Lively as ever, he asked his mother if he could go to his 3rd-floor playgroup that afternoon.
Without thinking, she refused. Laing watched her with growing interest. Like himself, Charlotte was
waiting for something to happen.
They did not have long to wait. In the early afternoon the first of a fresh series of provocations took place
between the rival floors, setting in motion again the dormant machinery of disruption and hostility. The
incidents were trivial enough, but Laing knew already that they reflected deep-rooted antagonisms that
were breaking through the surface of life within the high-rise at more and more points. Many of the
factors involved had long been obvious—complaints about noise and the abuse of the building’s facilities,
rivalries over the better-sited apartments (those away from elevator lobbies and the service shafts, with
their eternal rumbling). There was even a certain petty envy of the more attractive women who were
supposed to inhabit the upper floors, a widely held belief that Laing had enjoyed testing. During the
electricity blackout the eighteen-year-old wife of a fashion photographer on the 38thfloor had been
assaulted in the hairdressing salon by an unknown woman. Presumably in retaliation, three air-hostesses
from the 2ndfloor were aggressively jostled by ta party of marauding top-floor matrons led by the
strong-shouldered wife of the jeweller.
Watching from Charlotte’s balcony, Laing waited as the first of these incidents took place. Standing there
with a pretty woman, a drink in one hand, he felt pleasantly light-headed. Below them, on the 9thfloor, a
children’s party was in full swing. The parents made no attempt to restrain their offspring, in effect urging
them to make as much noise as possible. Within half an hour, fuelled by a constant flow of alcohol, the
parents took over from their children. Charlotte laughed openly as soft drinks were poured on to the cars
below, drenching the windscreens and roofs of the expensive limousines and sports saloons in the front
ranks.
These lively proceedings were watched by hundreds of residents who had come out on to their
balconies. Playing up to their audience, the parents egged on their children. The party was soon out of
control. Drunken children tottered about helplessly. High above them, on the 37thfloor, a woman
barrister began to shout angrily, outraged by the damage to her open-topped sports-car, whose black
leather seats were covered with melting ice-cream.
A pleasant carnival atmosphere reigned. At least it made a change, Laing felt, from the formal behaviour
of the high-rise. Despite themselves, he and Charlotte joined in the laughter and applause as if they were
spectators at an impromptu amateur circus.
A remarkable number of parties were being held that evening. Usually, few parties took place other than
at weekends, but on this Wednesday evening everyone was involved in one revel or another. Telephones
rang continuously, and Charlotte and Laing were invited to no less than six separate parties.
“I ought to get my hair done.” Charlotte took his arm happily, almost embracing Laing. “What exactly are
we celebrating?”
The question surprised Laing. He held Charlotte’s shoulder, as if protecting her. “God only
knows—nothing to do with fun and games.”
One of the invitations had come from Richard Wilder. Instantly, both he and Charlotte declined.
“Why did we refuse?” Charlotte asked, her hand still on the receiver. “He was expecting us to say no.”
Page 19
are rather
rowdy down there . . .”
“Robert, that’s a
rationalization.”
Behind Charlotte, as she
spoke, her television set was
showing the newsreel of an
attempted prison break-out.
The sound had been turned
down, and the silent images of
crouching warders and police,
and the tiers of barricaded
cells, nickered between her
legs. Everyone in the high-rise,
Laing reflected, watched
television with the sound
down. The same images
“The Wilders live on the and floor,” Laing explained. “Things
Page 20
glowed through his
neighbours’ doorways when he
returned to his apartment. For
the first time,people were
leaving their front doors ajar
and moving casually in and
out of each other’s
apartments.
However, these intimacies did
not extend beyond each
resident’s immediate floor.
Elsewhere the polarization of
the building proceeded apace.
Finding that he had run out of
liquor, Laing took the elevator
down to the loth-floor
concourse. As he expected,
Page 21
there was a heavy run on
alcohol, and long lines of
impatient residents stood
outside the liquor store. Seeing
his sister Alice near the
counter, Laing tried to enlist
her help. Without hesitating,
she turned him down, and
promptly launched into a
vigorous denunciation of the
tomfoolery that afternoon. In
some way she clearly
associated Laing with the
lower-floor tenants
responsible, identifying him
with Richard Wilder and his
rowdies.
Page 22
As Laing waited to be served,
what resembled a punitive
expedition from the upper
floors caused a fracas in the
swimming-pool. A party of
residents from the top three
floors arrived in a belligerent
mood. Among them was the
actress whose Afghan hound
had drowned in the pool. She
and her companions began by
fooling about in the water,
drinking champagne on a
rubber raft against the
swimming-pool rules and
splashing people leaving the
changing cubicles. After a
Page 23
futile attempt to intercede, the
elderly attendant gave up and
retreated to his booth behind
the diving-boards.
The elevators were full of
aggressive pushing and
heaving. The signal buttons
behaved erratically, and the
elevator shafts drummed as
people pounded impatiently on
the doors. On their way to a
party on the 27thfloor Laing
and Charlotte were jostled
when their elevator was
carried down to the 3rdfloor
by a trio of drunken pilots.
Bottles in hand, they had been
Page 24
trying for half an hour to
reach the 10thfloor. Seizing
Charlotte good-humouredly
around the waist, one of the
pilots almost dragged her off
to the small projection theatre
beside the school which had
previously been used for
showing children’s films. The
theatre was now screening a
private programme of blue
movies, including one
apparently made on the
premises with locally recruited
performers.
At the party on the 27thfloor,
given by Adrian Talbot, an
Page 25
effeminate but likeable
psychiatrist at the medical
school, Laing began to relax
for the first time that day. He
noticed immediately that all
the guests were drawn from
the apartments nearby. Their
faces and voices were
reassuringly familiar. In a
sense, as he remarked to
Talbot, they constituted the
members of a village.
“Perhaps a clan would be
more exact,” Talbot
commented. “The population
of this apartment block is
nowhere near so homogeneous
Page 26
as it looks at first sight. We’ll
soon be refusing to speak to
anyone outside our own
enclave.” He added, “My car
had its windscreen smashed
this afternoon by a falling
bottle. Could I move it back to
where you people are?” As a
qualified physician, Talbot
was entitled to park in the
ranks closest to the building.
Laing, perhaps anticipating
the dangers of proximity, had
never made use of this
concession. The psychiatrist’s
request was instantly granted
by his fellow residents, an
Page 27
appeal to solidarity that no
member of his clan could
deny.
The party was one of the most
successful Laing had attended.
Unlike the majority of parties
in the high-rise, at which
well-bred guests stood about
exchanging professional
small-talk before excusing
themselves, this one had real
buoyancy, an atmosphere of
true excitement. Within half
an hour almost all the women
were drunk, a yardstick Laing
had long used to measure the
success of a party.
Page 28
When he complimented Talbot
the psychiatrist was
non-committal. “There’s a
quickening pulse in the air, all
right, but has it anything to do
with good humour or
fellow-feeling? Rather the
opposite, I’d guess.”
“You’re not concerned?”
“For some reason, less than I
should be—but that’s true of
us all.”
These agreeably expressed
remarks cautioned Laing.
Listening to the animated
conversations around him, he
was struck by the full extent of
Page 29
the antagonisms being
expressed, the hostility
directed at people who lived in
other sections of the high-rise.
The malicious humour, the
eagerness to believe any piece
of gossip and any tall story
about the shiftlessness of the
lower-floor tenants, or the
arrogance of the upper-floor,
had all the intensity of racial
prejudice.
But as Talbot had pointed out,
Laing found himself
unworried by all this. He even
took a certain crude pleasure
in joining in the gossip, and in
Page 30
watching the usually
circumspect Charlotte Melville
put down several more than
two drinks too many. At least
it was a means by which they
could reach each other.
However, as the party broke
up a small but unpleasant
episode took place outside the
elevator doors in the
27th-floor lobby. Although it
was after ten o’clock, the
entire building was alive with
noise. Residents were barging
in and out of each other’s
apartments, shouting down the
staircases like children
Page 31
refusing to go to bed.
Confused by the endless
button-punching, the elevators
had come to a halt, and gangs
of impatient passengers
packed the lobbies. Although
their next destination, a party
given by a lexicographer on
the 26thfloor, was only one
storey below them, everyone
leaving Talbot’s party was
determined not to use the
stairs. Even Charlotte, face
flushed and tottering happily
on Laing’s arm, joined in the
wild surge across the elevator
lobby and drummed on the
Page 32
doors with her strong fists.
When at last an elevator
arrived, the doors opened to
reveal a solitary passenger, a
thin-shouldered and
neurasthenic young masseuse
who lived with her mother on
the 5thfloor. Laing
immediately recognized her as
one of the “vagrants”, of
whom there were many in the
high-rise, bored
apartment-bound housewives
and stay-at-home adult
daughters who spent a large
part of their time riding the
elevators and wandering the
Page 33
long corridors of the vast
building, migrating endlessly
in search of change or
excitement.
Alarmed by the drunken
crowd reeling towards her, the
young woman snapped out of
her reverie and pressed a
button at random. A derisory
hoot went up from the swaying
guests. Within seconds she was
pulled from the elevator and
put through a mock-playful
grilling. A statistician’s
over-excited wife shouted at
the hapless girl in a shrill
voice, pushed a strong arm
Page 34
through the front rank of
interrogators and slapped her
face.
Pulling himself away from
Charlotte, Laing stepped
forward. The crowd’s mood
was unpleasant but difficult to
take seriously. His neighbours
were like a group of
unrehearsed extras playing a
lynch scene.
“Come on—I’ll see you to the
stairs.” Holding the young
woman by her thin shoulders,
he tried to steer her towards
the door, but there was a
chorus of sceptical shouts. The
Page 35
women among the guests
pushed aside their husbands
and began to punch the girl on
the arms and chest.
Giving up, Laing stood to one
side. He watched as the
shocked young woman
stumbled into the mouth of
this eager gauntlet and was
pummelled through a circuit
of fists before she was allowed
to disappear into the stairwell.
His reflex of chivalry and good
sense had been no match for
this posse of middle-aged
avenging angels. Uneasily, he
thought: careful, Laing, or
Page 36
some stockbroker’s wife will
un-man you as expertly as she
de-stones a pair of avocados.
The night passed noisily, with
constant movement through
the corridors, the sounds of
shouts and breaking glass in
the elevator shafts, the blare of
music falling across the dark
air.
Page 37
3/Death of a Resident
A cloudless sky, as dull as the
air over a cold vat, lay across
the concrete walls and
embankments of the
development project. At dawn,
after a confused night, Laing
went out on to his balcony and
looked down at the silent
parking-lots below. Half a mile
to the south, the river
continued on its usual course
from the city, but Laing
searched the surrounding
landscape, expecting it to have
Page 38
changed in some radical way.
Wrapped in his bath-robe, he
massaged his bruised
shoulders. Although he had
failed to realize it at the time,
there had been a remarkable
amount of physical violence
during the parties. He touched
the tender skin, prodding the
musculature as if searching for
another self, the physiologist
who had taken a quiet studio
in this expensive apartment
building six months earlier.
Everything had started to get
out of hand. Disturbed by the
continuous noise, he had slept
Page 39
for little more than an hour.
Although the high-rise was
silent, the last of the hundred
or so separate parties held in
the building had ended only
five minutes beforehand.
Far below him, the cars in the
front ranks of the parking-lot
were spattered with broken
eggs, wine and melted
ice-cream. A dozen
windscreens had been knocked
out by falling bottles. Even at
this early hour, at least twenty
of Laing’s fellow residents
were standing on their
balconies, gazing down at the
Page 40
debris gathering at the
cliff-foot.
Unsettled, Laing prepared
breakfast, absent-mindedly
pouring away most of the
coffee he had percolated
before he tasted it. With an
effort he reminded himself
that he was due to
demonstrate in the physiology
department that morning.
Already his attention was fixed
on the events taking place
within the high-rise, as if this
huge building existed solely in
his mind and would vanish if
he stopped thinking about it.
Page 41
Staring at himself in the
kitchen mirror, at his
wine-stained hands and
unshaven face with its
surprisingly good colour, he
tried to switch himself on. For
once, Laing, he told himself,
fight your way out of your own
head. The disturbing image of
the posse of middle-aged
women beating up the young
masseuse anchored everything
around him to a different
plane of reality. His own
reaction—the prompt
side-step out of their
way—summed up more than
Page 42
he realized about the progress
of events.
At eight o’clock Laing set off
for the medical school. The
elevator was filled with broken
glass and beer cans. Part of
the control panel had been
damaged in an obvious
attempt to prevent the lower
floors signalling the car. As he
walked across the parking-lot
Laing looked back at the
high-rise, aware that he was
leaving part of his mind
behind him. When he reached
the medical school he walked
through the empty corridors
Page 43
of the building, with an effort
re-establishing the identity of
the offices and lecture
theatres. He let himself into
the dissecting rooms of the
anatomy department and
walked down the lines of
glass-topped tables, staring at
the partially dissected
cadavers. The steady
amputation of limbs and
thorax, head and abdomen by
teams of students, which
would reduce each cadaver by
term’s end to a clutch of bones
and a burial tag, exactly
matched the erosion of the
Page 44
world around the high-rise.
During the day, as Laing took
his supervision and lunched
with his colleagues in the
refectory, he thought
continually about the
apartment building, a
Pandora’s box whose
thousand lids were one by one
inwardly opening. The
dominant tenants of the
high-rise, Laing reflected,
those who had adapted most
successfully to life there, were
not the unruly airline pilots
and film technicians from the
lower floors, nor the
Page 45
bad-tempered and aggressive
wives of the well-to-do tax
specialists on the upper levels.
Although at first sight these
people appeared to provoke all
the tension and hostility, those
really responsible were the
quiet and self-contained
residents, like the dental
surgeon Steele and his wife. A
new social type was being
created by the apartment
building, a cool, unemotional
personality impervious to the
psychological pressures of
high-rise life, with minimal
needs for privacy, who thrived
Page 46
like an advanced species of
machine in the neutral
atmosphere. This was the sort
of resident who was content to
do nothing but sit in his
over-priced apartment, watch
television with the sound
turned down, and wait for his
neighbours to make a mistake.
Perhaps the recent incidents
represented a last attempt by
Wilder and the airline pilots to
rebel against this unfolding
logic? Sadly, they had little
chance of success, precisely
because their opponents were
people who were content with
Page 47
their lives in the high-rise, who
felt no particular objection to
an impersonal steel and
concrete landscape, no qualms
about the invasion of their
privacy by government
agencies and data-processing
organizations, and if anything
welcomed these invisible
intrusions, using them for
their own purposes. These
people were the first to master
a new kind of late
twentieth-century life. They
thrived on the rapid turnover
of acquaintances, the lack of
involvement with others, and
Page 48
the total self-sufficiency of
lives which, needing nothing,
were never disappointed.
Alternatively, their real needs
might emerge later. The more
arid and affectless life became
in the high-rise, the greater the
possibilities it offered. By its
very efficiency, the high-rise
took over the task of
maintaining the social
structure that supported them
all. For the first time it
removed the need to repress
every kind of anti-social
behaviour, and left them free
to explore any deviant or
Page 49
wayward impulses. It was
precisely in these areas that
the most important and most
interesting aspects of their
lives would take place. Secure
within the shell of the high-rise
like passengers on board an
automatically piloted airliner,
they were free to behave in any
way they wished, explore the
darkest corners they could
find. In many ways, the
high-rise was a model of all
that technology had done to
make possible the expression
of a truly “free”
psychopathology.
Page 50
During the long afternoon
Laing slept in his office,
waiting until he could leave the
medical school and return
home. When he left at last he
drove at speed past the
half-completed television
studios, and then was held up
for five minutes by a line of
bulk-cement carriers entering
the construction site. It was
here that Anthony Royal had
been injured when his car had
been crushed by a reversing
grader—it often struck Laing
as ironic, and in a way typical
Page 51
of Royal’s ambiguous
personality, that he should not
only have become the project’s
first road casualty, but have
helped to design the site of the
accident.
Annoyed by the delay, Laing
fretted at the wheel. For some
reason he was convinced that
important events were taking
place in his absence. Sure
enough, when he reached the
apartment building at six
o’clock he learned that a
number of fresh incidents had
occurred. After changing, he
joined Charlotte Melville for
Page 52
drinks. She had left her
advertising agency before
lunch, worried about her son.
“I didn’t like him being on his
own here—the babysitters are
so unreliable.” She poured
whisky into their glasses,
gesturing with the decanter in
an alarmed way as if about to
toss it over the balcony rail.
“Robert, what is happening ?
Everything seems to be in a
state of crisis—I’m frightened
to step into an elevator by
myself.”
“Charlotte, things aren’t that
bad,” Laing heard himself say.
Page 53
“There’s nothing to worry
about.”
Did he really believe that life
here was running smoothly?
Laing listened to his own
voice, and noticed how
convincing he sounded. The
catalogue of disorder and
provocation was a long one,
even for a single afternoon.
Two successive groups of
children from the lower floors
had been turned away from
the recreation garden on the
roof. This walled enclosure
fitted with swings,
roundabouts and
Page 54
play-sculptures had been
specifically intended by
Anthony Royal for the
amusement of the residents’
children. The gates of the
garden had now been
padlocked, and any children
approaching the roof were
ordered away. Meanwhile, the
wives of several top-floor
tenants claimed that they had
been abused in the elevators.
Other residents, as they left
for their offices that morning,
had found that their car tyres
had been slashed. Vandals had
broken into the classrooms of
Page 55
the junior school on the
10thfloor and torn down the
children’s posters. The lobbies
of the five lower floors had
been mysteriously fouled by
dog excrement; the residents
had promptly scooped this
into an express elevator and
delivered it back to the top
floor.
When Laing laughed at this
Charlotte drummed her
fingers on his arm, as if trying
to wake him up.
“Robert! You ought to take all
this seriously!”
“I do . . .”
Page 56
“You’re in a trance !”
Laing looked down at her,
suddenly aware that this
intelligent and likeable woman
was failing to get the point. He
placed an arm around her,
unsurprised by the fierce way
in which she embraced him.
Ignoring her small son trying
to open the kitchen door, she
leaned against it and pulled
Laing on to herself, kneading
his arms as if trying to
convince herself that here at
last was something whose
shape she could influence.
During the hour they waited
Page 57
for her son to fall asleep her
hands never left Laing. But
even before they sat down
together on her bed Laing
knew that, almost as an
illustration of the paradoxical
logic of the high-rise, their
relationship would end rather
than begin with this first
sexual act. In a real sense this
would separate them from
each other rather than bring
them together. By the same
paradox, the affection and
concern he felt for her as they
lay across her small bed
seemed callous rather than
Page 58
tender, precisely because these
emotions were unconnected
with the realities of the world
around them. The tokens that
they should exchange, which
would mark their real care for
each other, were made of far
more uncertain materials, the
erotic and perverse.
When she was asleep in the
early evening light, Laing let
himself out of the apartment
and went in search of his new
friends.
Outside, in the corridors and
elevator lobbies, scores of
Page 59
people were standing about. In
no hurry to return to his
apartment, Laing moved from
one group to another, listening
to the talk going on. These
informal meetings were soon
to have an almost official
status, forums at which the
residents could air their
problems and prejudices.
Most of their grievances,
Laing noticed, were now
directed at the other tenants
rather than at the building.
The failure of the elevators
was blamed on people from
the upper and lower floors, not
Page 60
on the architects or the
inefficient services designed
into the block.
The garbage-disposal chute
Laing shared with the Steeles
had jammed again. He tried to
telephone the building
manager, but the exhausted
man had been inundated with
complaints and requests for
action of every kind. Several
members of his staff had
resigned and the energies of
the remainder were now
devoted to keeping the
elevators running and trying
to restore power to the
Page 61
9thfloor.
Laing mustered what tools he
could find and went into the
corridor to free the chute
himself. Steele immediately
came to his aid, bringing with
him a complex multi-bladed
cutting device. While the two
men worked away, trying to
loosen a bundle of brocaded
curtain that supported a
column of trapped kitchen
refuse, Steele amiably regaled
Laing with a description of
those tenants above and below
them responsible for
overloading the disposal
Page 62
system.
“Some of these people
generate the most unusual
garbage—certainly the kind of
thing we didn’t expect to find
here,” he confided to Laing.
“Objects that could well be of
interest to the vice squad. That
beautician on the 33rdfloor,
and the two so-called
radiographers living together
on the 22nd. Strange young
women, even for these days . .
.”
To some extent, Laing found
himself agreeing. However
petty the complaints might
Page 63
sound, the fifty-year-old owner
of the hairdressing salon was
endlessly redecorating her
apartment on the 33rdfloor,
and did stuff old rugs and even
intact pieces of small furniture
into the chute.
Steele stood back as the
column of garbage sank below
in a greasy avalanche. He held
Laing’s arm, steering him
around a beer can lying on the
corridor floor. “Still, no doubt
we’re all equally guilty—I
hear that on the lower floors
people are leaving small
parcels of garbage outside
Page 64
their apartment doors. Now,
you’ll come in for a drink? My
wife is keen to see you again.”
Despite his memories of their
quarrel, Laing had no qualms
about accepting. As he
expected, in the larger climate
of confrontation any unease
between them was soon
forgotten. Her hair
immaculately coiffeured, Mrs
Steele hovered about him with
the delighted smile of a novice
madam entertaining her first
client. She even complimented
Laing on his choice of music,
which she could hear through
Page 65
the poorly insulated walls.
Laing listened to her spirited
description of the continuous
breakdown of services within
the building, the vandalizing of
an elevator and the changing
cubicles of the 10th-floor
swimming-pool. She referred
to the high-rise as if it were
some kind of huge animate
presence, brooding over them
and keeping a magisterial eye
on the events taking place.
There was something in this
feeling—the elevators
pumping up and down the
long shafts resembled pistons
Page 66
in the chamber of a heart. The
residents moving along the
corridors were the cells in a
network of arteries, the lights
in their apartments the
neurones of a brain.
Laing looked out across the
darkness at the brilliantly lit
decks of the nearby high-rise,
barely aware of the other
guests who had arrived and
were sitting in the chairs
around him—the television
newsreader Paul Crosland,
and a film critic named
Eleanor Powell, a
hard-drinking redhead whom
Page 67
Laing often found riding the
elevators up and down in a
fuddled attempt to find her
way out of the building.
Crosland had become the
nominal leader of their
clan—a local cluster of some
thirty contiguous apartments
on the 25th, 26thand
27thfloors. Together they were
planning a joint shopping
expedition to the 10th-floor
supermarket the following
day, like a band of villagers
going on an outing to an
unpoliced city.
Beside him on the sofa,
Page 68
Eleanor Powell was watching
Crosland in a glazed way while
the newsreader, in his florid
announcer’s style, outlined his
proposals for the security of
their apartments. Now and
then she reached forward with
one hand, as if trying to adjust
Crosland’s image, perhaps
alter the colour values of his
fleshy cheeks or turn down the
volume of his voice.
“Isn’t your apartment next to
the elevator lobby?” Laing
asked her. “You’ll need to
barricade yourself in.”
“What on earth for? I leave
Page 69
the door wide open.” When
Laing looked puzzled, she
said, “Isn’t that part of the fun
?”
“You think that we’re secretly
enjoying all this?”
“Don’t you ? I’d guess so,
doctor. Togetherness is
beating up an empty elevator.
For the first time since we
were three years old what we
do makes absolutely no
difference. When you think
about it, that’s really rather
interesting . . .”
When she leaned against him,
resting her head on -his
Page 70
shoulder, Laing said:
“Something seems to be wrong
with the air-conditioning . . .
there should be some fresh air
on the balcony.”
Holding his arm, she picked
up her bag. “All right. Lift me
up. You’re a shy lecher, doctor
. . .”
They had reached the french
windows when there was an
explosion of breaking glass
from a balcony high above
them. Fragments of glass
flicked away like knives
through the night air. A large,
ungainly object whirled past,
Page 71
no more than twenty feet from
the balcony. Startled, Eleanor
blundered into Laing. As they
caught their balance there was
the sound of a harsh metallic
collision from the ground
below, almost as if a car had
crashed. A short but unbroken
silence followed, the first true
quiet, Laing realized, that the
building had known for days.
Everyone crowded on to the
balcony, Crosland and Steele
grappling together as if each
was trying to prevent the other
from jumping over the ledge.
Pushed along the railing,
Page 72
Laing saw his own empty
balcony fifteen feet away. In
an absurd moment of panic he
wondered if he himself was the
victim. All around, people
were leaning on their railings,
glasses in hand, staring down
through the darkness.
Far below, embedded in the
crushed roof of a car in the
front rank, was the body of a
man in evening dress. Eleanor
Powell, her face like pain,
swayed from the rail and
pushed her way past Crosland.
Laing held tightly to the metal
bar, shocked and excited at
Page 73
the same time. Almost every
balcony on the huge face of the
high-rise was now occupied,
the residents gazing down as if
from their boxes in an
enormous outdoor opera
house.
No one approached the
crushed car, or the body
embedded in its roof. Seeing
the burst tuxedo and the small
patent-leather shoes, Laing
thought that he recognized the
dead man as the jeweller from
the 40thfloor. His pebble
spectacles lay on the ground
by the front wheel of the car,
Page 74
their intact lenses reflecting
the brilliant lights of the
apartment building.
4/Up!
During the week after the
jeweller’s death, events moved
rapidly in a more disquieting
direction. Richard Wilder,
Page 75
twenty-four floors below Dr
Laing and for that reason far
more exposed to the pressures
generated within the building,
was among the first to realize
the full extent of the changes
taking place.
Wilder had been away on
location for three days,
shooting scenes for a new
documentary on prison unrest.
A strike by the inmates at a
large provincial prison, widely
covered by the newspapers
and television, had given him a
chance to inject some directly
topical footage into the
Page 76
documentary. He returned
home in the early afternoon.
He had telephoned Helen each
evening from his hotel and
questioned her carefully about
conditions in the high-rise, but
she made no particular
complaints. Nevertheless, her
vague tone concerned him.
When he had parked Wilder
kicked open the door and
lifted his heavy body from
behind the steering wheel.
From his place on the
perimeter of the parking-lot he
carefully scanned the face of
the huge building. At first
Page 77
glance everything had settled
down. The hundreds of cars
were parked in orderly lines.
The tiers of balconies rose
through the clear sunlight,
potted plants thriving behind
the railings. For a moment
Wilder felt a pang of
regret—always a believer in
direct action, he had enjoyed
the skirmishes of the past
week, roughing up his
aggressive neighbours,
particularly those residents
from the top floors who had
made life difficult for Helen
and the two boys.
Page 78
The one discordant note was
provided by the fractured
picture window on the
40thfloor, through which the
unfortunate jeweller had made
his exit. At either end of the
floor were two penthouse
apartments, the north corner
occupied by Anthony Royal,
the other by the jeweller and
his wife. The broken pane had
not been replaced, and the
asterisk of cracked glass
reminded Wilder of some kind
of cryptic notation, a transfer
on the fuselage of a wartime
aircraft marking a kill.
Page 79
Wilder unloaded his suitcase
from the car, and a holdall
containing presents for Helen
and his sons. On the rear seat
was a lightweight cine-camera
with which he planned to shoot
a few hundred feet of pilot
footage for his documentary
on the high-rise. The
unexplained death of the
jeweller had confirmed his
long-standing conviction that
an important documentary
was waiting to be made about
life in the high-rise—perhaps
taking the jeweller’s death as
its starting point. It was a
Page 80
lucky coincidence that he lived
in the same block as the dead
man—the programme would
have all the impact of a
personal biography. When the
police investigation ended the
case would move on to the
courts, and a huge question
mark of notoriety would
remain immovably in place
over what he liked to term this
high-priced tenement, this
hanging palace self-seeding its
intrigues and destruction.
Carrying the luggage in his
strong arms, Wilder set off on
the long walk back to the
Page 81
apartment building. His own
apartment was directly above
the proscenium of the main
entrance. He waited for Helen
to emerge on to the balcony
and wave him in, one of the
few compensations for having
to leave his car at the edge of
the parking-lot. However, all
but one of the blinds were still
drawn.
Quickening his step, Wilder
approached the inner lines of
parked cars. Abruptly, the
illusion of normalcy began to
give way. The cars in the front
three ranks were spattered
Page 82
with debris, their once-bright
bodywork streaked and
stained. The pathways around
the building were littered with
bottles, cans, and broken
glass, heaped about as if they
were being continuously shed
from the balconies.
In the main entrance Wilder
found that two of the elevators
were out of order. The lobby
was deserted and silent, as if
the entire high-rise had been
abandoned. The manager’s
office was closed, and unsorted
mail lay on the tiled floor by
the glass doors. On the wall
Page 83
facing the line of elevators was
scrawled a partly obliterated
message—the first of a series
of slogans and private signals
that would one day cover
every exposed surface in the
building. Fittingly enough,
these graffiti reflected the
intelligence and education of
the tenants. Despite their wit
and imagination, these
complex acrostics,
palindromes and civilized
obscenities aerosolled across
the walls soon turned into a
colourful but indecipherable
mess, not unlike the cheap
Page 84
wallpapers found in
launderettes and
travel-agencies which the
residents of the high-rise most
affected to despise.
Wilder waited impatiently by
the elevators, his temper
mounting. Irritably he
punched the call buttons, but
none of the cars showed any
inclination to respond to him.
All of them were permanently
suspended between the
20thand 30thfloors, between
which they made short
journeys. Picking up his bags,
Wilder headed for the
Page 85
staircase. When he reached the
2ndfloor he found the corridor
in darkness, and tripped over
a plastic sack stuffed with
garbage that blocked his front
door.
As he let himself into the hall
his first impression was that
Helen had left the apartment
and taken the two boys away
with her. The blinds in the
living-room were lowered, and
the air-conditioning had been
switched off. Children’s toys
and clothes lay about on the
floor.
Wilder opened the door of the
Page 86
boys’ bedroom. They lay
asleep together, breathing
unevenly in the stale air. The
remains of a meal left from the
previous day were on a tray
between the beds.
Wilder crossed the
living-room to his own
bedroom. One blind had been
raised, and the daylight
crossed the white walls in an
undisturbed bar. Uncannily, it
reminded Wilder of a cell he
had filmed two days earlier in
the psychiatric wing of the
prison. Helen lay fully dressed
on the neatly made bed. He
Page 87
assumed that she was asleep,
but as he crossed the room,
trying to quieten his heavy
tread, her eyes watched him
without expression.
“Richard . . . it’s all right.”
She spoke calmly. “I’ve been
awake—since you rang
yesterday, in fact. Was it a
good trip?”
She started to get up but
Wilder held her head on the
pillow.
“The boys—what’s going on
here?”
“Nothing.” She touched his
hand, giving him a reassuring
Page 88
smile. “They wanted to sleep,
so I let them. There isn’t
anything else for them to do.
It’s too noisy at night. I’m
sorry the place is in such a
mess.”
“Never mind the place. Why
aren’t the boys at school?”
“It’s closed—they haven’t
been since you left.”
“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?”
Page 89
“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.
Page 90
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
Page 91
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
Page 92
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
Page 93
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
Page 94
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
Page 95
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?”
Page 96
“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
Page 97
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
Page 98
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
Page 99
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 30thfloors, where
the corridors were clean and
the children would not have to
play in the streets, where
tolerance and sophistication
Page 100
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
Page 101
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
Page 102
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
Page 103
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
Page 104
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
Page 105
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
Page 106
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
Page 107
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
Page 108
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
Page 109
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
Page 110
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
Page 111
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
Page 112
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
35thfloor and the children’s
sculpture-garden on the
observation roof. Taking his
camera, he set out for the roof
Page 113
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
35thfloor. When it arrived he
Page 114
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
23rdfloor 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
Page 115
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.
Page 116
“This staircase is closed,
Wilder! Can’t you get the
point?”
“What?” Wilder was amazed
by this effrontery. “How do
you mean?”
“_Closed!_ 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
Page 117
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
Page 118
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
Page 119
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
Page 120
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
Page 121
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.
Page 122
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.
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
Page 123
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 10thfloor to
Page 124
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
Page 125
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
Page 126
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
Page 127
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,
Page 128
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
Page 129
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
Page 130
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 10thfloor. A few
telephone calls to his
neighbours on the lower floors
had confirmed that they were
Page 131
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
Page 132
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
Page 133
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.
Page 134
“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
Page 135
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
Page 136
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
Page 137
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
Page 138
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
Page 139
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
Page 140
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
Page 141
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
Page 142
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
Page 143
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.
Page 144
“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
Page 145
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
Page 146
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
Page 147
going up to the 35thfloor 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
Page 148
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 35thfloor, the indicator
numerals flashing from right
to left. While it approached,
Wilder thought of Helen and
the two boys—he knew
Page 149
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
2ndfloor 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
Page 150
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
5thand 8th, were now in
darkness.
Page 151
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
Page 152
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
Page 153
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
Page 154
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
Page 155
hours, he regretted that she
was too weak to come with
him. They might have climbed
the high-rise together.
Trying to think more clearly
about his ascent, Wilder began
to clean the apartment. He
stepped out on to the balcony
and swept up the cigarette
butts and broken glass,
condoms and torn newspapers
thrown down from the floors
above. He could no longer
remember when he had made
his decision to climb the
building, and had little idea of
what exactly he would do
Page 156
when he finally got there. He
was also well aware of the
disparity between the simple
business of climbing to the
roof—a matter of pressing an
elevator button—and the
mythologized version of this
ascent that had taken over his
mind.
This same surrender to a logic
more powerful than reason
was evident in the behaviour
of Wilder’s neighbours. In the
elevator lobby he listened to
the latest rumours. Earlier
that morning there had been a
serious brawl between the 9thPage 157
and llth-floor tenants. The
10th-floor concourse was now
a no-man’s land between two
warring factions, the residents
of the lower nine floors and
those in the middle section of
the building. Despite the
harassment and increasing
violence, no one was surprised
by these events. The routines
of daily life within the
high-rise, the visits to the
supermarket, liquor store and
hair-dressing salon continued
as before. In some way the
high-rise was able to
accommodate this double
Page 158
logic. Even the tone of voice of
his neighbours as they
described these outbreaks of
hostility was calm and
matter-of-fact, like that of
civilians in a war-torn city
dealing with yet another
air-raid. For the first time it
occurred to Wilder that the
residents enjoyed this
breakdown of its services, and
the growing confrontation
between themselves. All this
brought them together, and
ended the frigid isolation of
the previous months.
During the afternoon Wilder
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played with his sons and
waited for the evening to
come. Helen moved silently
around the apartment, barely
aware of her husband. After
the fit of compulsive laughter
the previous evening, her face
was waxy and expressionless.
Now and then a tic flickered in
the right apex of her mouth, as
if reflecting a tremor deep
within her mind. She sat at the
dining-table, mechanically
straightening the boys’ hair.
Watching her, and unable to
think of what he could do to
help her, Wilder almost
Page 160
believed that it was she who
was leaving him, rather than
the contrary.
As the light began to fade,
Wilder watched the first of the
residents return from their
offices. Among them, stepping
from her car, was Jane
Sheridan. Six months earlier,
Wilder had broken off a brief
affair with the actress,
ironically enough because of
the effort involved in reaching
the 37thfloor. He had found it
difficult to be himself in her
apartment. All the time he was
conscious of the distance to the
Page 161
ground, and of his wife and
children far below him, deep
in the lowest seams of the
building like the exploited
women and child labourers of
the nineteenth century.
Watching television during
their sexual acts in her
chintz-lined bedroom, he felt
as if he were high over the city
in a lavish executive airliner
fitted with boudoir and
cocktail bar. Their
conversations, even their
diction and vocabulary, had
become as stylized as those of
strangers in adjacent aircraft
Page 162
seats.
The actress walked to the
private entrance of the
upper-floor elevator lobby,
picking her way casually
through the broken bottles
and empty cans. A single
journey to her apartment
would carry him, like a ladder
in a board game, virtually to
the top of the high-rise with
one throw of the dice.
Helen was putting the boys to
bed. She had moved the
wardrobe and dressing-table
around their beds, in an
attempt to shield them from
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the noise and disturbances
which the night would bring.
“Richard . . . ? Are you going .
. . ?”
As she spoke she emerged
briefly from the deep well
inside herself, aware for these
few seconds that she and her
sons were about to be left on
their own.
Wilder waited for this moment
of lucidity to pass, knowing
that it would be impossible to
describe his self-imposed
mission to Helen. She sat
silently on her bed, a hand
resting on the pile of children’s
Page 164
books, watching him in the
mirror with an unchanging
expression as he stepped into
the corridor.
Wilder soon found that it was
more difficult than he had
assumed to climb to the
37thfloor. The five top-floor
elevators were either out of
order or had been taken to the
upper levels and parked there
with their doors jammed open.
The 2nd-floor lobby was
crowded with Wilder’s
neighbours, some in office
suits, others in beach wear,
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arguing with each other like
disgruntled tourists caught by
a currency crisis. Wilder
pushed through them to the
staircase, and began the long
climb to the 10thfloor, where
he stood a better chance of
finding an ascending elevator.
When he reached the 5thfloor
he met the dozen members of
the airline pilots’ raiding party
returning from another of
their abortive missions. Angry
and shaken, they shouted at
the people jeering down at
them from the stairwell above.
The entrance to the 10th-floor
Page 166
concourse had been blocked
by desks and chairs taken
from the junior school and
flung down the stairs. The
raiding party, made up of
parents of the children
attending the school, had tried
to replace the desks, harassed
by residents from the middle
floors waiting impatiently for
the liquor store to be
re-stocked.
Wilder pressed on past them.
By the time he reached the
10thfloor the opposing group
had moved off in a posse.
Wilder stepped over the
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broken desks lying on the
steps, pencils and crayons
scattered around them.
Wishing that he had brought
his camera with him, he
noticed two 18th-floor
residents, a chemical engineer
and a personnel manager,
standing by the door. Each
had a cine-camera and was
carefully filming the scene
below, following Wilder as he
climbed towards them.
Leaving them to complete
these dubious private
news-reels, Wilder pushed
back the swing doors, and
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looked out at the deck of the
shopping mall. Hundreds of
residents jostled against each
other, pulling and shoving
among the wine-bins and
shelves of detergent packs,
wire trollies locked together in
a mesh of chromium wire.
Voices rose in anger above the
singing of the cash registers.
Meanwhile, as these scuffles
took place, a line of women
customers sat under the driers
in the hairdressing salon,
calmly reading their
magazines. The two cashiers
on evening duty at the bank
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impassively counted out their
bank-notes.
Giving up any attempt to cross
the concourse, Wilder turned
into the deserted
swimming-pool. The water
level was down by at least six
inches, as if someone had been
stealing the yellowing fluid.
Wilder walked around the
pool. An empty wine bottle
floated in the centre,
surrounded by a swill of
cigarette packs and
unravelling cigar butts. Below
the diving-boards a newspaper
hung slackly in the water, its
Page 170
wavering headline like a
message from another world.
In the 10th-floor lobby a
crowd of residents pressed
impatiently against the
elevator doors, their arms
laden with liquor cartons and
delicatessen purchases, raw
materials for the aggressive
parties of that evening. Wilder
returned to the staircase.
Somewhere above him these
passengers would step out of
their elevators and give him a
chance to get aboard.
He climbed the steps two at a
time. The staircase was
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deserted—the higher up the
building the more reluctant
were the residents to use the
stairs, as if this in some way
demeaned them. As he pressed
on upwards Wilder peered
through the windows at the
car-park sinking from view
below. The distant arm of the
river stretched towards the
darkening outline of the city, a
signpost pointing towards a
forgotten world.
As he turned into the final
stretch of steps to the
14thfloor, picking his way
among the discarded cans and
Page 172
cigarette packs, something
moved above his head. Wilder
paused and looked up, his
lungs pumping in the silence.
A kitchen chair whirled
through the air towards his
head, hurled down by an
assailant three floors above.
Wilder flinched back as the
steel chair struck the railing,
glancing against his right arm
before spinning away.
Wilder crouched against the
steps, shielding himself below
the overhang of the next floor.
He massaged his bruised arm.
At least three or four people
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were waiting for him,
ostentatiously tapping their
clubs on the metal railing.
Fists clenching, Wilder
searched the steps for a
weapon. Danger in the streets
of the sky—his first impulse
was to rush the stairs and
counter-attack. With his
powerful physique he knew
that he could put to flight any
three residents of the high-rise,
these under-exercised and
overweight account executives
and corporation lawyers egged
on into this well-bred violence
by their pushy wives.
Page 174
However, he calmed himself,
deciding against a frontal
attack—he would reach the
top of the high-rise, but by
guile rather than by brute
force.
He moved down to the
13th-floor landing. Through
the walls of the elevator shaft
he could hear the rails and
cables humming. Passengers
were stepping out of the
elevators on to their floors.
But the doors into the
13th-floor lobby had been
bolted. A face frowned out at
him, a well-groomed hand
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curtly waved him away.
All the way down to the
10thfloor the communicating
doors had been locked or
barricaded. Frustrated,
Wilder returned to the
shopping mall. A large crowd
was still waiting by the
elevators. They formed clearly
demarked groups from
different floors, each
commandeering its own
transit system.
Wilder left them and strode
towards the supermarket. The
shelves had been stripped, and
the staff had left after locking
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the turnstiles. Wilder vaulted
over a check-out counter and
made his way to the
store-room at the rear.
Beyond the pyramids of empty
cartons was one of the three
service cores of the high-rise,
containing a freight elevator,
and the water, air-conditioning
and electrical supply trunks.
Wilder waited as the elevator
descended cumbrously down
its shaft. The size of a carrier’s
aircraft lift, it had been
designed to carry
kitchen-appliance islands,
bathroom units, and the huge
Page 177
pop-art and
abstract-expressionist
paintings favoured by the
residents of the high-rise.
As he pulled back the steel
grille he noticed a
thin-shouldered young woman
hiding behind the control
panel. She was pallid and
undernourished, but she
watched Wilder with interest,
as if glad to welcome him to
this private domain.
“How far do you want to go?”
she asked him. “We can travel
anywhere. I’ll ride with you.”
Wilder recognized her as a
Page 178
masseuse from the 5thfloor,
one of the vagrants who spent
their time wandering around
the high-rise, the denizens of
an interior world who formed
a second invisible population.
“All right—what about the
35thfloor?”
“The people on the 30thare
nicer.” Expertly she pressed
the control buttons, activating
the heavy doors. Within
seconds the elevator was
carrying them ponderously
aloft. The young masseuse
smiled at him encouragingly,
alive now that they were
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moving. “If you want to go
higher, I’ll show you. There
are a lot of air-shafts, you
know. The trouble is, dogs
have got into them—they’re
getting hungry . . .”
An hour later, when Wilder
stepped out into the lavishly
carpeted lobby of the
37thfloor, he realized that he
had discovered a second
building inside the one that he
had originally occupied. He
left behind the young
masseuse, endlessly climbing
the service shafts and freight
Page 180
wells of the high-rise, transits
that externalized an odyssey
taking place inside her head.
During his roundabout route
with her—changing to a
second freight elevator to
climb three floors to the 28th,
moving up and down a maze
of corridors on the borders of
hostile enclaves, until finally
taking an upper-level elevator
a journey of one
storey—Wilder had seen the
way in which the middle and
upper levels of the building
had organized themselves.
While his neighbours on the
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lower floors remained a
confused rabble united only by
their sense of impotence, here
everyone had joined a local
group of thirty adjacent
apartments, informal clans
spanning two or three floors
based on the architecture of
corridors, lobbies and
elevators. There were now
some twenty of these groups,
each of which had formed
local alliances with those on
either side. There was a
marked increase in vigilante
activity of all kinds. Barriers
were being set up, fire-doors
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locked, garbage thrown down
the stairwells or dumped on
rival landings.
On the 29thfloor Wilder came
across a commune composed
exclusively of women, a cluster
of apartments dominated by
an elderly children’s-story
writer, a woman of
intimidating physique and
personality. Sharing an
apartment with her were three
air-hostesses from the 1stfloor.
Wilder walked gingerly down
the corridor between their
apartments, glad of the
company of the young
Page 183
masseuse. What unsettled
Wilder, as the women
questioned him in pairs from
their half-open doors, was
their hostility to him, not only
because he was a man, but
because he was so obviously
trying to climb to a level above
their own.
He stepped out with relief into
the deserted lobby of the
37thfloor. He stood by the
staircase doors, suspicious that
no one was guarding the
lobby. Conceivably the
residents here were unaware
of what was going on beneath
Page 184
their feet. The carpets in the
silent corridors were thick
enough to insulate them from
hell itself.
He walked down the corridor
towards Jane Sheridan’s
apartment. She might be
surprised to see him, but
Wilder was confident that he
would spend the night with
her. The next day he would
move in permanently, and visit
Helen and the boys on his way
to and from the television
studios.
As he pressed the bell he could
hear her strong, masculine
Page 185
voice through the door, its
tone familiar from countless
television costume-dramas. At
last the door opened, held on
its latch chain. When she
looked out at Wilder,
recognizing him immediately,
he knew that she had been
waiting for him to arrive. She
was detached and uneasy at
the same time, like a spectator
forced to watch someone
about to be involved in an
accident. Wilder remembered
that he had given his
destination to one of the
women’s vigilante groups.
Page 186
“Jane, you’re expecting me.
I’m flattered.”
“Wilder . . . I can’t—“
Before Wilder could speak the
door of the next apartment
opened sharply. Staring at
Wilder with undisguised
hostility were a tax specialist
from the 40thfloor and an
over-muscled choreographer
with whom Wilder had often
heaved a medicine ball in the
10th-floor gymnasium.
Realizing that his arrival had
been anticipated by all these
people, Wilder turned to leave,
but the corridor behind him
Page 187
was blocked. A group of six
residents had emerged
together from the elevator
lobby. They wore track suits
and white sneakers, and at
first sight looked like a
middle-aged gymnasium
dumb-bell team, each carrying
his polished wooden clubs.
Leading this antique but
spritely troupe, which
consisted of a stockbroker,
two paediatricians and three
senior academics, was
Anthony Royal. As usual he
wore his white safari-jacket, a
costume which always
Page 188
irritated Wilder, the kind of
garment that might be
affected by an eccentric
camp-commander or
zoo-keeper. The corridor
lighting flushed his blond hair
and picked out the scars on his
forehead, a confusing notation
that hung like a series of
mocking question marks over
his stern expression. As he
approached Wilder the
chromium walking-stick
flicked in his hand like a cane.
Wilder watched the polished
shaft catch the light, looking
forward with pleasure to
Page 189
wrapping it around Royal’s
neck.
Although well aware that he
had been trapped, Wilder
found himself laughing aloud
at the sight of this lunatic
troupe. When the lights failed,
first dipping warningly and
then going out altogether, he
backed against the wall to
allow the group to pass. The
wooden clubs clicked around
him in the darkness, beating
out a well-rehearsed tattoo.
From the open door of Jane
Sheridan’s apartment a torch
flared at him.
Page 190
Around Wilder the dumb-bell
troupe was beginning its act.
The first clubs whirled in the
torch-light. Without any
warning, he felt a flurry of
blows on his shoulders. Before
he fell Wilder seized one of the
clubs, but the others struck
him to the carpeted floor at
Anthony Royal’s feet.
When he woke he was lying
outstretched on a sofa in the
ground-floor entrance lobby.
Fluorescent lights shone
around him, reflected in the
glass ceiling-panels. With their
Page 191
toneless glow they seemed to
have been shining for ever
somewhere inside his head.
Two residents returning late to
the high-rise waited by the
elevators. Holding tightly to
their briefcases, they ignored
Wilder, whom they clearly
assumed to be drunk.
Aware of his bruised
shoulders, Wilder reached up
and nursed the swollen
mastoid bone behind his right
ear. When he could stand, he
wandered away from the sofa
towards the entrance and
steadied himself against the
Page 192
glass doors. The lines of
parked cars stretched through
the darkness, enough
transport to evacuate him to a
thousand and one destinations.
He walked out into the cold
night air. Holding his neck, he
looked up at the face of the
high-rise. He could almost
pick out the lights of the
37thfloor. He felt suddenly
exhausted, as much by the
building’s weight and mass as
by his own failure. His casual
and unthought-out attempt to
scale the building had ended
humiliatingly. In a sense he
Page 193
had been rejected more by the
high-rise than by Royal and
his friends.
Lowering his eyes from the
roof, he saw that his wife, fifty
feet above him, was watching
from the balcony of their
apartment. Despite his
dishevelled clothes and
bruised face she showed no
concern, as if she no longer
recognized him.
Page 194
7/Preparations for Departure
High above, on the 40thfloor,
the first two residents were
preparing to leave.
All day Anthony Royal and his
wife had been packing. After
lunch in the deserted
restaurant on the 35thfloor
they returned to their
apartment, where Royal spent
what he knew would be his last
hours in the high-rise closing
down his design studio. In no
Page 195
hurry to leave, now that the
moment had come for them to
abandon the building, Royal
deliberately took his time over
this last ritual task.
The air-conditioning had
ceased to function, and the
absence of its vague familiar
hum—once a source of minor
irritation—made Royal
restless. However reluctantly,
he was now forced to recognize
what he had been trying to
repress for the past month,
despite the evidence of his
eyes. This huge building he
had helped to design was
Page 196
moribund, its vital functions
fading one by one—the
water-pressure falling as the
pumps faltered, the electrical
sub-stations on each floor
switching themselves off, the
elevators stranded in their
shafts.
As if in sympathy, the old
injuries to his legs and back
had begun to keen again.
Royal leaned against his
drawing-stand, feeling the
pain radiate upwards from his
knees into his groin. Gripping
the chromium cane, he left the
studio and moved among the
Page 197
tables and armchairs in the
drawing-room, each shrouded
in its dust-sheet. In the year
since his accident he had found
that constant exercise alone
held back the pain, and he
missed the games of squash
with Robert Laing. Like his
own physicians, Laing had
told him that the injuries
sustained in car-crashes took a
great deal of time to heal, but
Royal recently had begun to
suspect that these wounds
were playing a devious role of
their own.
The three suitcases he had
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packed that morning stood
ready in the hall. Royal stared
down at them, for a moment
hoping that they belonged to
someone else. The cases had
never been used, and the
prominent part they would
soon play in his personal
Dunkirk only rubbed in the
humiliation.
Royal returned to the studio
and continued to take down
the architectural drawings and
design studies pinned to the
walls. This small office in a
converted bedroom he had
used for his work on the
Page 199
development project, and the
collection of books and
blueprints, photographs and
drawing-boards, originally
intended to give a sense of
purpose to his convalescence,
had soon become a kind of
private museum. The majority
of the plans and design studies
had been superseded by his
colleagues after the accident,
but in a strange way these old
frontal elevations of the
concert-hall and television
studios, like the photograph of
himself standing on the roof of
the high-rise on hand-over
Page 200
day, described a more real
world than the building which
he was now about to abandon.
The decision to leave their
apartment, already postponed
for too long, had been difficult
to take. For all his professional
identification with the
high-rise as one of its
architects, Royal’s
contribution had been minor,
but sadly for him had
concerned those very sections
which had borne the brunt of
the residents’ hostility—the
10th-floor concourse, the
junior school, the observation
Page 201
roof with its children’s
sculpture-garden, and the
furnishing and design of the
elevator lobbies. Royal had
gone to immense care in the
choice of wall surfaces, now
covered by thousands of
aerosolled obscenities. It was
stupid of him, perhaps, but it
was difficult not to take them
personally, particularly as he
was only too aware of his
neighbours’ hostility towards
him—the chromium cane and
white alsatian were no longer
theatrical props.
In principle, the mutiny of
Page 202
these well-to-do professional
people against the building
they had collectively
purchased was no different
from the dozens of
well-documented revolts by
working-class tenants against
municipal tower-blocks that
had taken place at frequent
intervals during the post-war
years. But once again Royal
had found himself reacting
personally to these acts of
vandalism. The breakdown of
the building as a social
structure was a rebellion
against himself, so much so
Page 203
that in the early days after the
jeweller’s unexplained death
he expected to be physically
attacked.
Later, however, the collapse of
the high-rise began to
strengthen his will to win
through. The testing of the
building he had helped to
design was a testing of himself.
Above all, he became aware
that a new social order was
beginning to emerge around
him. Royal was certain that a
rigid hierarchy of some kind
was the key to the elusive
success of these huge
Page 204
buildings. As he often pointed
out to Anne, office blocks
containing as many as thirty
thousand workers functioned
smoothly for decades thanks
to a social hierarchy as rigid
and as formalized as an
anthill’s, with an incidence of
crime, social unrest, and petty
misdemeanours that was
virtually nil. The confused but
unmistakable emergence of
this new social
order—apparently based on
small tribal
enclaves—fascinated Royal.
To begin with, he had been
Page 205
determined to stay on, come
what may and whatever the
hostility directed against him,
in the hope of acting as its
midwife. In fact, this alone had
stopped him from notifying his
former colleagues of the
mounting chaos within the
building. As he told himself
repeatedly, the present
breakdown of the high-rise
might well mark its success
rather than its failure.
Without realizing it, he had
given these people a means of
escaping into a new life, and a
pattern of social organization
Page 206
that would become the
paradigm of all future
high-rise blocks.
But these dreams of helping
the two thousand residents
towards their new Jerusalem
meant nothing to Anne. As the
air-conditioning and electricity
supply began to fail, and it
became dangerous to move
unaccompanied around the
building, she told Royal that
they were leaving. Playing on
Royal’s concern for her, and
his own feelings of guilt about
the breakdown of the
high-rise, she soon persuaded
Page 207
him that they must go.
Curious to see how she was
getting on with her packing,
Royal walked into his wife’s
bedroom. Two wardrobe
trunks, and a selection of
small and large suitcases,
jewellery boxes and vanity
cases lay open on the floor and
dressing-table like a luggage
store display. Anne was
packing, or unpacking, one of
the cases in front of the
dressing-table mirror.
Recently, Royal had noticed
that she deliberately
surrounded herself with
Page 208
mirrors, as if this replication
of herself gave her some kind
of security. Anne had always
taken for granted a naturally
deferential world, and the last
few weeks, even in the
comparative safety of this
penthouse apartment, she had
found more and more trying.
The childlike strains in her
character had begun to come
out again, as if she was suiting
her behaviour to the
over-extended mad-hatter’s
tea-party that she had been
forced to attend like a
reluctant Alice. The journey
Page 209
down to the 35th-floor
restaurant had become a daily
ordeal, and only the prospect
of leaving the apartment
building for good had kept her
going.
She stood up and embraced
Royal. As usual, without
thinking, she touched the scars
on his forehead with her lips,
as if trying to read a digest of
the twenty-five years that
separated them, a key to that
part of Royal’s life she had
never known. As he recovered
from the accident, sitting in
the windows of the penthouse
Page 210
or exercising on the
callisthenics machine, he had
noticed how much his wounds
had intrigued her.
“What a mess.” She gazed
down hopefully at the jumble
of suitcases. “I’ll be about an
hour—have you called the
taxi?”
“We’ll need at least two. They
refuse to wait now—there’s no
point in calling them until
we’re on the doorstep.”
Both their own cars, parked in
the line nearest the building,
had been damaged by the
tenants below, their
Page 211
windscreens knocked out by
falling bottles.
Anne returned to her packing.
“The important thing is that
we’re going. We should have
left a month ago when I
wanted to. Why anyone stays
on here I can’t imagine.”
“Anne, we’re leaving . . .”
“At last—and why has no one
called the police? Or
complained to the owners?”
“We are the owners.” Royal
turned his head away from
her, his smile of affection
stiffening. Through the
windows he watched the light
Page 212
fading across the
curtain-walling of the nearby
high-rises. Inevitably, he had
always taken Anne’s criticisms
as a comment on himself.
As Royal knew now, his young
wife would never be happy in
the special atmosphere of the
high-rise. The only daughter of
a provincial industrialist, she
had been brought up in the
insulated world of a large
country house, a finicky copy
of a Loire chateau maintained
by a staff of servants in the
full-blown nineteenth-century
manner. In the apartment
Page 213
building, by contrast, the
servants who waited on her
were an invisible army of
thermostats and humidity
sensors, computerized elevator
route-switches and
over-riders, playing their parts
in a far more sophisticated
and abstract version of the
master-servant relationship.
However, in Anne’s world it
was not only necessary for
work to be done, but be seen
to be done. The steady
breakdown of the building’s
services, and the confrontation
between the rival groups of
Page 214
tenants, had been too much for
her, playing on her huge sense
of insecurity, all her
long-ingrained upper-class
uncertainties about
maintaining her superior place
in the world. The present
troubles in the apartment
block had exposed these
mercilessly. When he had first
met her, Royal had taken for
granted her absolute
self-confidence, but in fact the
reverse was true—far from
being sure of herself, Anne
needed constantly to
re-establish her position on the
Page 215
top rung of the ladder. By
comparison, the professional
people around her, who had
achieved everything as a result
of their own talents, were
models of self-assurance.
When they first moved into
the high-rise as its first
tenants, they had both
intended the apartment to be
no more than a pied à terre ,
conveniently close to Royal’s
work on the development
project. As soon as they found
a house in London they would
leave. But Royal noticed that
he continued to postpone any
Page 216
decision to move out. He was
intrigued by life in this vertical
township, and by the kind of
people attracted to its smooth
functionalism. As the first
tenant, and owner of the best
and highest apartment, he felt
himself to be lord of the
manor—borrowing a phrase
he disliked from Anne’s rule
book. His sense of physical
superiority as a sometime
amateur tennis champion—a
minor hard-courts title,
though no less impressive for
that—had inevitably slackened
with the passage of years, but
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in a way had been rekindled
by the presence of so many
people directly below him, on
the shoulders of whose far
more modest dwellings his
own rested securely.
Even after his accident, when
he had been forced to sell out
his partnership and retreat to
a wheelchair in the penthouse,
he had felt this sense of
renewed physical authority.
During the months of
convalescence, as his wounds
healed and his body grew
stronger, each of the new
tenants in some way seemed
Page 218
identified with his
strengthening muscles and
sinews, his quickening reflexes,
each one bringing his invisible
tribute to Royal’s wellbeing.
For Anne, by contrast, the
continued flow of new arrivals
puzzled and irritated her. She
had enjoyed the apartment
when they were alone in the
high-rise, taking it for granted
that no one else would appear.
She rode the elevators as if
they were the grandly
upholstered gondolas of a
private funicular, swam alone
in the undisturbed waters of
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the two swimming-pools, and
strolled about the shopping
concourse as if visiting her
own personal bank,
hairdresser and supermarket.
By the time that the last of the
two thousand residents had
appeared and taken their
place below, Anne was
impatient to move.
But Royal was drawn to his
new neighbours, exemplars
beyond anything he had
previously imagined of the
puritan work ethic. In turn, he
knew from Anne that his
neighbours found him a
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puzzling and aloof figure, an
automobile-crash casualty in
his wheelchair living on the
roof of the high-rise in a casual
ménage with a rich young wife
half his age whom he was
happy to see taken out by
other men. Despite this
symbolic emasculation, Royal
was still regarded in some way
as having the key to the
building. His scarred forehead
and chromium cane, the white
jacket which he affected and
wore like a target, together
seemed to be the elements of a
code that concealed the real
Page 221
relationship between the
architect of this huge building
and its uneasy tenants. Even
Anne’s always imminent
promiscuities were part of this
same system of ironies,
appealing to Royal’s liking for
the “game” situation where
one could risk everything and
lose nothing.
The effect of all this on his
neighbours interested Royal,
and particularly on those
mavericks such as Richard
Wilder, who would set out to
climb Everest equipped with
nothing more than a sense of
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irritation that the mountain
was larger than himself, or Dr
Laing, staring out all day from
his balcony under the fond
impression that he was totally
detached from the high-rise,
when in fact he was probably
its most true tenant. At least
Laing knew his place and kept
to it; three nights earlier they
had been forced to give Wilder
a short sharp lesson.
Thinking about Wilder’s
intrusion—only one in a series
of attempts by people below to
break into the top-floor
apartments—Royal left the
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bedroom and checked the
bolts on the front door.
Anne waited while he stood in
the deserted corridor. There
was a continuous sullen
murmur from the lower levels
carried up the elevator shafts.
She pointed to Royal’s three
suitcases.
“Is that all you’re taking?”
“For the time being. I’ll come
back for anything else.”
“Come back? Why should you
want to? Perhaps you’d rather
stay?”
To himself, rather than to his
wife, Royal remarked, “First
Page 224
to arrive, last to leave . . .”
“Is that a joke?”
“Of course not.”
Anne placed a hand on his
chest, as if searching for an old
wound. “It’s really all over,
you know. I hate to say it, but
this place hasn’t worked.”
“Perhaps not . . .” Royal took
her commiseration with a
strong dose of salt. Without
realizing it, Anne often played
on his sense of failure,
frightened by Royal’s new
resolve to prove himself, this
conviction that the building
might succeed after all. In
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addition, their neighbours had
accepted him a little too
readily as their leader. His
partnership in the consortium
had been largely paid for by
the commissions her father
had steered his way, a fact
Anne had never let him forget,
not to humble Royal so much
as to prove her own value to
him. The point was made,
though. He had come up in the
world, all right, in too many
senses of the term. In an
insane way, his accident might
have been an attempt to break
out of the trap.
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But all this belonged to the
past now. As Royal knew, they
were leaving just in time.
During the last few days life in
the high-rise had become
impossible. For the first time
the top-floor residents were
directly involved. The erosion
of everything continued, a slow
psychological avalanche that
was carrying them
downwards.
Superficially, life in the
apartment building was
normal enough—most of the
residents left for their offices
Page 227
each day, the supermarket was
still open, the bank and
hair-dressing salon functioned
as usual. Nonetheless, the real
internal atmosphere was that
of three uneasily coexisting
armed camps. A complete
hardening of positions had
taken place, and there was
now almost no contact
between the upper, middle and
lower groups. During the early
part of the day it was possible
to move freely around the
building, but as the afternoon
proceeded this became
increasingly difficult. By dusk
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any movement was impossible.
The bank and supermarket
closed at three o’clock. The
junior school had moved from
its vandalized classrooms to
two apartments on the
7thfloor. Few children were
ever seen above the 10thfloor,
let alone in the
sculpture-garden on the roof
which Royal had designed for
them with so much care. The
10th-floor swimming-pool was
a half-empty pit of yellowing
water and floating debris. One
of the squash courts had been
locked, and the other three
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were filled with garbage and
broken classroom furniture.
Of the twenty elevators in the
building, three were
permanently out of order, and
by evening the remainder had
become the private transit
lines of the rival groups who
could seize them. Five floors
were without electricity. At
night the dark bands stretched
across the face of the high-rise
like dead strata in a fading
brain.
Fortunately for Royal and his
neighbours, conditions in the
upper section of the building
Page 230
had yet to decline so steeply.
The restaurant had
discontinued its evening
service, but a limited luncheon
was available each day during
the few hours when the small
staff could freely enter and
leave. However, the two
waiters had already gone, and
Royal guessed that the chef
and his wife would soon
follow. The swimming-pool on
the 35thfloor was usable, but
the level had fallen, and the
water supply, like that to their
own apartment, was
dependent on the vagaries of
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the roof tanks and electric
pumps.
From the drawing-room
windows Royal looked down
into the parking-lot. Many of
the cars had not been moved
for weeks—windscreens
broken by falling bottles,
cabins filled with garbage,
they sat on flattening tyres,
surrounded by a sea of
rubbish that spread outwards
around the building like an
enlarging stain.
This visible index of the
block’s decline at the same
time measured the extent to
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which its tenants accepted this
process of erosion. At times
Royal suspected that his
neighbours unconsciously
hoped that everything would
decline even further. Royal
had noticed that the
manager’s office was no longer
besieged by indignant
residents. Even his own
top-floor neighbours, who in
the early days had been only
too quick to complain about
everything, now never
criticized the building. In the
absence of the manager—still
lying in a state of mental
Page 233
collapse in his ground-floor
apartment—his dwindling
staff of two (the wives of a
dubbing-mixer on the 2ndfloor
and a first violinist on the 3rd)
sat stoically at their desks in
the entrance lobby, oblivious
of the deterioration going on
apace over their heads.
What interested Royal was the
way in which the residents had
become exaggeratedly crude in
their response to the
apartment building,
deliberately abusing the
elevators and air-conditioning
systems, over-straining the
Page 234
power supply. This
carelessness about their own
convenience reflected a
shuffling of mental priorities,
and perhaps the emergence of
the new social and
psychological order for which
Royal was waiting. He
remembered the attack on
Wilder, who had laughed
happily as the group of
paediatricians and academics
had flailed away at him with
their dumb-bells like a troupe
of demented gymnasts. Royal
had found the episode
grotesque, but he guessed that
Page 235
in some obscure way Wilder
had been glad to be flung
half-conscious into an elevator.
Royal strolled around the
shrouded furniture. He raised
his stick and slashed at the
stale air with the same stroke
he had used against Wilder. At
any moment a battalion of
police would arrive and cart
them all off to the nearest jail.
Or would they? What played
straight into the residents’
hands was the remarkably
self-contained nature of the
high-rise, a self-administered
enclave within the larger
Page 236
private domain of the
development project. The
manager and his staff, the
personnel who manned the
supermarket, bank and
hairdressing salon, were all
residents of the apartment
building; the few outsiders had
left or been sacked. The
engineers who serviced the
building did so on instructions
from the manager, and clearly
none had been issued. They
might even have been told to
stay away—no
garbage-collection vehicle had
called for several days, and a
Page 237
large number of the chutes
were blocked.
Despite the growing chaos
around them, the residents
showed less interest in the
external world. Bales of
un-sorted mail lay about in the
ground-floor lobbies. As for
the debris scattered around
the high-rise, the broken
bottles and cans, these were
barely noticeable from the
ground. Even the damaged
cars were to some extent
concealed by the piles of
building materials, wooden
forms and sand-pits that had
Page 238
yet to be cleared away.
Besides, as part of that
unconscious conspiracy to shut
out the external world, no
visitors came to the high-rise.
He and Anne had invited none
of their friends to the
apartment for months.
Royal watched his wife move
about vaguely in her bedroom.
Jane Sheridan, Anne’s closest
friend, had called in and was
helping her to pack. The two
women were transferring a
line of evening gowns from the
wardrobe racks to the trunks,
and at the same time returning
Page 239
unwanted shirts and trousers
from the suitcases back to the
shelves. For all the activity it
was uncertain whether they
were packing on the eve of
departure or unpacking on
arrival.
“Anne—are you coming or
going?” Royal asked. “We
hardly stand a chance of
making it tonight.”
Anne gestured helplessly at the
half-filled cases. “It’s the
air-conditioning—I can’t
think.”
“You won’t get out now even if
you want to,” Jane told her.
Page 240
“We’re marooned here, as far
as I can see. All the elevators
have been commandeered by
other floors.”
“What? Did you hear that?”
Anne stared angrily at Royal,
as if his faulty design of the
elevator lobbies was directly
responsible for these acts of
piracy. “All right, we’ll leave
first thing tomorrow. What
about food? The restaurant
will be shut.”
They had never eaten in the
apartment—Anne’s gesture of
contempt for her neighbours’
endless preparation of
Page 241
elaborate meals. The only food
in the refrigerator was the
dog’s.
Royal stared at himself in the
mirror, adjusting his white
jacket. In the fading light his
reflection had an almost
spectral vibrancy, making him
look like an illuminated
corpse. “We’ll think of
something.” A curious answer,
he realized, implying that
there were other sources of
food than the supermarket. He
looked down at Jane
Sheridan’s plump figure.
Seeing Royal’s subdued
Page 242
expression, she was smiling
reassuringly at him. Royal had
taken on the task of looking
after this amiable young
woman since the death of her
Afghan.
“The elevators may be free in
an hour or so,” he told them.
“We’ll go down to the
supermarket.” Thinking of the
alsatian—presumably asleep
on his bed in the penthouse-he
decided to exercise it on the
roof.
Anne had begun to empty the
half-filled suitcases. She
seemed barely aware of what
Page 243
she was doing, as if a large
part of her mind had been
switched off. For all her
complaints, she had never
telephoned the building
manager herself. Perhaps she
felt this was beneath her, but
nor had she mentioned the
smallest criticism to any of
their friends in the world
beyond the apartment
building.
Thinking about this, Royal
noticed that the plug of her
bedside telephone had been
pulled from its socket, and the
cable neatly wrapped around
Page 244
the receiver.
As he walked around the
apartment before going to
search for the dog, he saw that
the three other external
telephones, in the hall,
drawing-room and kitchen,
had also been disconnected.
Royal realized why they had
received no outside calls
during the previous week, and
felt a distinct sense of security
at knowing that they would
receive none in the future.
Already he guessed that, for
all their expressed intentions,
they would not be leaving
Page 245
either the following morning
or any other.
8/The Predatory Birds
From the open windows of the
penthouse Royal watched the
huge birds clustering on the
elevator heads fifty feet away.
An unfamiliar species of
Page 246
estuarine gull, they had come
up the river during the
previous months and begun to
congregate among the
ventilation shafts and water
storage tanks, infesting the
tunnels of the deserted
sculpture-garden. During his
convalescence he had watched
them arrive as he sat in his
wheelchair on the private
terrace. Later, when the
callisthenics machine had been
installed, the birds would
hobble around the terrace
while he exercised. In some
way they were attracted by
Page 247
Royal’s white jacket and pale
hair, so close in tone to their
own vivid plumage. Perhaps
they identified him as one of
their own, a crippled old
albatross who had taken
refuge on this remote roof-top
beside the river? Royal liked
this notion and often thought
about it.
The french windows swung in
the early evening air. The
alsatian had escaped, hunting
by itself on the
five-hundred-feet-long
observation deck. Now that
the summer had ended few
Page 248
people went up to the roof.
The remains of a
cocktail-party marquee,
bedraggled in the rain, lay in
the gutter below the
balustrade. The gulls, heavy
wings folded, strutted among
the cheese sticks scattered
around a cardboard carton.
The potted palms had been
untended for months, and the
whole roof increasingly
resembled a voracious garden.
Royal stepped down on to the
roof deck. He enjoyed the
hostile gaze of the birds sitting
on the elevator heads. The
Page 249
sense of a renascent barbarism
hung among the overturned
chairs and straggling palms,
the discarded pair of diamante
sunglasses from which the
jewels had been picked. What
attracted the birds to this
isolated realm on the roof? As
Royal approached, a group of
the gulls dived into the air,
soaring down to catch the
scraps flung from a balcony
ten floors below them. They
fed on the refuse thrown into
the car-park, but Royal liked
to think that their real motives
for taking over the roof were
Page 250
close to his own, and that they
had flown here from some
archaic landscape, responding
to the same image of the
sacred violence to come.
Fearing that they might leave,
he frequently brought them
food, as if to convince them
that the wait would be worth
their while.
He pushed back the rusty
gates of the sculpture-garden.
From the casement of a
decorative lantern he took out
a box of cereal meal, by rights
reserved for the alsatian.
Royal began to scatter the
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grains among the concrete
tunnels and geometric forms
of the play-sculptures.
Designing the garden had
given him particular
satisfaction, and he was sorry
that the children no longer
used the playground. At least
it was open to the birds. The
gulls followed him eagerly,
their strong wings almost
knocking the cereal box from
his hands.
Leaning on his stick, Royal
swung himself around the
pools of water on the concrete
floor. He had always wanted
Page 252
his own zoo, with half a dozen
large cats and, more
important, an immense aviary
stocked with every species of
bird. Over the years he had
sketched many designs for the
zoo, one of
them—ironically—a high-rise
structure, where the birds
would be free to move about in
those sections of the sky that
were their true home. Zoos,
and the architecture of large
structures, had always been
Royal’s particular interest.
The drenched body of a
Siamese cat lay in the gutter
Page 253
where the birds had cornered
it—the small beast had
climbed all the way up a
ventilation shaft from the
warm comfort of an
apartment far below,
embracing the daylight for a
few last seconds before the
birds destroyed it. Next to the
cat was the carcass of a dead
gull. Royal picked it up,
surprised by its weight,
stepped forward and with a
powerful running throw
hurled the bird far out into the
air. It plummeted towards the
ground, in an almost unending
Page 254
downward plunge, until it
burst like a white bomb across
the bonnet of a parked car.
No one had seen him, but
Royal would not have cared
anyway. For all his keen
interest in his neighbours’
behaviour, he found it difficult
not to look down on them. The
five years of his marriage to
Anne had given him a new set
of prejudices. Reluctantly, he
knew that he despised his
fellow residents for the way in
which they fitted so willingly
into their appointed slots in
the apartment building, for
Page 255
their over-developed sense of
responsibility and lack of
flamboyance.
Above all, he looked down on
them for their good taste. The
building was a monument to
good taste, to the
well-designed kitchen, to
sophisticated utensils and
fabrics, to elegant and never
ostentatious furnishings—in
short, to that whole aesthetic
sensibility which these
well-educated professional
people had inherited from all
the schools of industrial
design, all the award-winning
Page 256
schemes of interior decoration
institutionalized by the last
quarter of the twentieth
Century. Royal detested this
orthodoxy of the intelligent.
Visiting his neighbours’
apartments, he would find
himself physically repelled by
the contours of an
award-winning coffee-pot, by
the well-modulated colour
schemes, by the good taste and
intelligence that, Midas-like,
had transformed everything in
these apartments into an ideal
marriage of function and
design. In a sense, these people
Page 257
were the vanguard of a
well-to-do and well-educated
proletariat of the future,
boxed up in these expensive
apartments with their elegant
furniture and intelligent
sensibilities, and no possibility
of escape. Royal would have
given anything for one vulgar
mantelpiece ornament, one
less than snow-white lavatory
bowl, one hint of hope. Thank
God that they were at last
breaking out of this fur-lined
prison.
On either side of him, the
Page 258
rain-soaked concrete stretched
away into the evening mist.
There were no signs of the
white alsatian. Royal had
reached the centre of the roof.
The gulls sat on the ventilation
shafts and elevator heads,
watching him with their
unusually alert eyes. Thinking
that they might already have
dined off the dog, Royal
kicked aside an overturned
chair and set off towards the
stairhead, calling out the
alsatian’s name.
Ten feet from the private
terrace at the southern end of
Page 259
the roof, a middle-aged
woman in a long fur coat stood
by the balustrade. Shivering
continuously, she stared out
across the development
project at the silver back of
the river. A trio of lighters
followed a tug upstream, and a
police patrol boat cruised
along the north bank.
As Royal approached he
recognized the widow of the
dead jeweller. Was she waiting
for the police to arrive, in
some perverse way too proud
to call them herself? He was
about to ask if she had seen
Page 260
the alsatian, but he knew
already that she would not
reply. Her face was
immaculately made up, but an
expression of extreme hostility
came through the rouge and
powder, a gaze as hard as
pain. Royal held tight to his
cane. The woman’s hands
were hidden from sight, and
he almost believed that inside
the coat her jewelled fingers
held a pair of unsheathed
knives. For some reason he
was suddenly convinced that
she had been responsible for
her husband’s death, and that
Page 261
at any moment she would seize
him and wrestle him over the
ledge. At the same time, to his
surprise, he found himself
wanting to touch her, to put
his arm around her shoulders.
Some kind of wayward
sexuality was at work. For a
grotesque moment he was
tempted to expose himself to
her.
“I’m looking for Anne’s
alsatian,” he said lamely.
When she made no reply he
added, “We’ve decided to stay
on.”
Confused by his response to
Page 262
this grieving woman, Royal
turned away and made his
way down the staircase to the
floor below. Despite the pain
in his legs he walked swiftly
along the corridor, striking at
the walls with his cane.
When he reached the central
lobby the sounds of the
alsatian’s frantic barking rose
clearly up the nearest of the
five high-speed elevator shafts.
Royal pressed his head to the
door panel. The elevator car,
with the alsatian snarling and
leaping inside it, was on the
15thfloor, its doors jammed
Page 263
open. Royal could hear the
heavy blows of a metal club
striking at the floor and walls,
and the shouts of three
attackers—one of them a
woman—as they beat the
animal to the floor.
When the dog’s yelping
subsided, the elevator at last
responded to the call button.
The car climbed to the top
floor, where the doors opened
on the barely conscious dog
dragging itself around the
bloodied floor. The animal’s
head and shoulders were
heavy with blood. Matted hair
Page 264
streaked the walls of the cabin.
Royal tried to reassure it, but
the alsatian snapped at his
hand, frightened of the stick.
Several of his neighbours
gathered around, carrying an
assortment of
weapons—tennis rackets,
dumb-bells and walking sticks.
They were beckoned aside by
a friend of Royal’s, a
gynaecologist named
Pangbourne who lived in the
apartment next to the lobby. A
swimming partner of Anne’s,
he often played with the dog
on the roof.
Page 265
“Let me have a look at him . . .
Poor devil, those savages have
abused you . . .” Deftly he
insinuated himself into the
elevator and began to soothe
the dog. “We’ll get him back
to your apartment. Royal.
Then I suggest we discuss the
elevator position.”
Pangbourne knelt down on the
floor, whistling a strange series
of sounds at the dog. For some
weeks the gynaecologist had
been urging Royal to interfere
with the building’s electrical
switching systems, as a means
of retaliating against the lower
Page 266
floors. This supposed power
over the high-rise was the chief
source of Royal’s authority
with his neighbours, though he
suspected that Pangbourne for
one was well aware that he
would never make use of it.
With his soft hands and
consulting-room manner the
gynaecologist unsettled Royal
slightly, as if he were always
just about to ease an unwary
patient into a compromising
obstetric position—in fact,
though, Pangbourne belonged
to the new generation of
gynaecologists who never
Page 267
actually touched their patients,
let alone delivered a child. His
speciality was the
computerized analysis of
recorded birth-cries, from
which he could diagnose an
infinity of complaints to come.
He played with these tapes like
an earlier generation of
sorcerer examining the
patterns of entrails.
Characteristically,
Pangbourne’s one affair in the
high-rise had been with a
laboratory researcher on the
and floor, a slim, silent
brunette who probably spent
Page 268
all her time tormenting small
mammals. He had broken this
off soon after the outbreak of
hostilities.
Nonetheless, he had a way
with the injured alsatian.
Royal waited while he calmed
the dog and examined its
wounds. He held its muzzle in
his white hands as if he had
just freed the poor beast from
its caul. Together, he and
Royal half-carried and
half-dragged the dog back to
Royal’s apartment.
Fortunately, Anne and Jane
Sheridan had left for the
Page 269
10th-floor supermarket,
picking up the one elevator
released for general traffic.
Pangbourne settled the dog on
the dust-sheet covering one of
the sofas.
“I’m glad you were here,”
Royal told him. “You’re not at
your practice?”
Pangbourne stroked the
alsatian’s swollen head, his
white hands delicate with
blood. “I attend my
consultancy two mornings a
week, just enough time for me
to listen to the latest
recordings. Otherwise I’m on
Page 270
guard duty here.” He peered
pointedly at Royal. “If I were
you, I’d keep a closer eye on
Anne—unless you want her to
be . . .”
“Sound advice. You’ve never
thought of leaving ? The
conditions now . . .”
The gynaecologist frowned at
Royal as if unsure whether he
was serious. “I’ve only just
moved here. Why should I
concede anything to these
people?” He pointed
expressively at the floor with a
bloodstained finger.
Impressed by the
Page 271
determination of this refined
and punctilious man to defend
his terrain, Royal followed
him to the door, thanking him
for his help and promising to
discuss with him the sabotage
of the elevators. For the next
half an hour Royal cleaned the
wounds of the alsa-tian.
Although the dog began to
sleep, the bloodstains on the
white dust-sheet made Royal
feel increasingly restless. The
assault had released in him a
more than half-conscious wish
for conflict. To date he had
been a moderating influence,
Page 272
restraining his neighbours
from any unnecessary
retaliatory action. Now he
wanted trouble at any price.
Somewhere below a falling
bottle burst on a balcony, a
brief explosion against the
rising background of
over-noisy record-players,
shouts and hammering. The
light in the apartment had
begun to fade, the shrouded
furniture suspended around
him like under-inflated clouds.
The afternoon had passed, and
soon the danger period would
begin. Thinking of Anne trying
Page 273
to make her way back from
the 10thfloor, Royal turned to
leave the apartment.
By the door he stopped,
holding one hand over the dial
of his wrist-watch. His concern
for Anne was as strong as
ever—if anything he felt more
possessive towards her—but
he decided to let another
half-hour elapse before he
went in search of her.
Perversely, this would increase
the element of danger, the
chance of confrontation. He
walked calmly around the
apartment, noting the
Page 274
telephones on the floor and the
neatly wrapped cables. Even if
she were trapped somewhere,
Anne would be unable to call
him.
While he waited for the
darkness, Royal went up to the
penthouse and watched the
gulls on the elevator heads. In
the evening light their plumage
was a vibrant white. Like
birds at dusk waiting among
the cornices of a mausoleum,
they flicked their wings
against the bone-like concrete.
As if agitated by Royal’s
confused state, they rose
Page 275
excitedly into the air. Royal
was thinking of his wife, of the
possible assaults on her, an
almost sexual fever of hazard
and revenge tightening his
nerves. In another twenty
minutes he would leave the
apartment and make his
killing drop down the shafts of
the high-rise, murder
descending. He wished he
could take the birds with him.
He could see them diving
down the elevator shafts,
spiralling through the
stairwells to swoop into the
corridors. He watched them
Page 276
wheel through the air, listening
to their cries as he thought of
the violence to come.
9/lnto the Drop Zone
At seven o’clock Anthony
Royal set out with the white
alsatian to find his wife. The
dog had recovered sufficiently
Page 277
from its beating to limp along
in front of him. Its damp pelt
was marked with a vivid
crimson bloom. Like the
bloodstains on his white
jacket, Royal was proud of
these signs of combat. As if
mimicking the dog, he wore its
blood on his chest and hips,
the insignia of an executioner’s
apparel yet to be designed.
He began his descent into the
lower depths of the building in
the high-speed elevator lobby.
A group of excited neighbours
had just emerged from one of
the cars. Four floors down, an
Page 278
apartment had been
ransacked by a party of
tenants from the 15thfloor.
These sporadic raids on
apartments were taking place
with increasing frequency.
Empty apartments, even if left
for no more than a single day,
were especially vulnerable.
Some unconscious system of
communication alerted any
would-be raiders that an
apartment a dozen floors
above or below was ripe for
ransack.
With difficulty Royal found an
elevator to take him down to
Page 279
the 35thfloor. The restaurant
had closed. After serving a last
lunch to the Royals the chef
and his wife had left for good.
Chairs and tables had been
stacked around the kitchen in
a barricade, and the revolving
door was padlocked. The long
observation windows, with
their magnificent view, were
shuttered and chained,
throwing the north end of the
pool into darkness.
The last swimmer, a market
analyst from the 38thfloor,
was leaving the
swimming-pool. His wife
Page 280
waited protectively outside his
cubicle as he changed. She
watched the alsatian lapping
at the water lying on the
greasy tiles by the
diving-board. When the dog
relieved itself against the door
of an empty cubicle her face
was expressionless. Royal felt
a modest pride in this act,
which rekindled a primitive
territorial reflex. The marking
of this cubicle with the dog’s
over-bright urine defined the
small terrain coming under his
sway.
Page 281
For the next hour Royal
continued his search for his
wife, descending deeper into
the central mass of the
high-rise. As he moved from
one floor to the next, from one
elevator to another, he realized
the full extent of its
deterioration. The residents’
rebellion against the
apartment building was now
in full swing. Garbage lay
heaped around the jammed
disposal chutes. The stairways
were littered with broken
glass, splintered kitchen chairs
and sections of handrail. Even
Page 282
more significant, the
pay-phones in the elevator
lobbies had been ripped out,
as if the tenants, like Anne and
himself, had agreed to shut off
any contact with the world
outside.
The further down Royal
reached, the greater the
damage. Fire safety doors
leaned off their hinges, quartz
inspection windows punched
out. Few corridor and
staircase lights still worked,
and no effort had been made
to replace the broken bulbs.
By eight o’clock little light
Page 283
reached the corridors, which
became dim tunnels strewn
with garbage sacks. The lurid
outlines of lettered slogans,
aerosolled in luminous paint
across the walls, unravelled
around him like the decor of a
nightmare.
Rival groups of residents stood
around in the lobbies,
guarding their elevators and
watching each other along the
corridors. Many of the women
had portable radios slung
from their shoulders, which
they switched from station to
station as if tuning up for an
Page 284
acoustic war. Others carried
cameras and flash equipment,
ready to record any acts of
hostility, any incursions into
their territory.
By changing elevators and
making journeys of two floors
at a time, Royal finally
descended into the lower half
of the apartment building. He
was unmolested by the other
residents, who watched him as
he entered their lobbies,
moving out of his way as he
strolled past. The wounded
alsatian and Royal’s
bloodstained jacket gave him
Page 285
free passage through these
rival clans, as if he were a
betrayed landowner
descending from his keep to
parade his wounds among his
rebellious tenants.
By the time he reached the
10thfloor the concourse was
almost deserted. A few
residents wandered around the
shopping mall, staring at the
empty chromium counters.
The bank and liquor store
were closed, their grilles
chained. There was no sign of
Anne. Royal led the alsatian
through the swing doors into
Page 286
the swimming-pool, now
barely half full. The yellow
water was filled with debris,
the floor at the shallow end
emerging like a beach in a
garbage lagoon. A mattress
floated among the bottles,
surrounded by a swill of
cardboard cartons and
newspapers.
Even a corpse would go
unnoticed here, Royal
reflected. As the alsatian
snuffled its way along the
vandalized changing cubicles,
Royal waved his cane at the
humid air, trying to stir it into
Page 287
life. He would soon suffocate
here in the lower section of the
apartment building. During
even this brief visit he had felt
crushed by the pressure of all
the people above him, by the
thousands of individual lives,
each with its pent-up time and
space.
From the elevator lobby on the
far side of the swimming-pool
came the sounds of shouting.
Urging on the dog, Royal
strode to the rear exit behind
the diving-boards. Through
the glass doors he watched a
Page 288
heated argument taking place
outside the entrance to the
junior school. Some twenty
men and women were
involved, one group from the
lower floors carrying desks
and chairs, a blackboard and
artist’s easel, the other trying
to prevent them from
re-occupying the classrooms.
Scuffles soon broke out. Egged
on by a film-editor wielding a
desk over his head, the parents
pressed forward determinedly.
Their opponents, residents
from the nth and 12thfloors,
stood their ground, forming a
Page 289
heavy-breathing cordon. A
bad-tempered brawl
developed, men and women
wrestling clumsily with each
other.
Royal pulled the alsatian
away, deciding to leave this
jostling group to settle their
own dispute. As he turned to
continue his search for Anne,
the staircase doors leading into
the lobby were flung back. A
group of residents, all from
the 14thand 15thfloors, leapt
out and hurled themselves into
the melee. They were led by
Richard Wilder, cine-camera
Page 290
gripped like a battle standard
in one hand. Royal assumed
that Wilder was filming an
episode from the documentary
he had been talking about for
so long, and had set up the
entire scene. But Wilder was
in the thick of the fray,
aggressively wielding the
cine-camera as he urged on his
new allies against his former
neighbours. The raiding party
was shouldered back towards
the staircase in disarray, the
parents dropping the desks
and blackboard.
Wilder slammed the staircase
Page 291
doors behind them. Expelling
his sometime neighbours and
friends had clearly given him
enormous satisfaction. Waving
his camera, he pointed to the
classroom of the junior school.
Two young women, Royal’s
wife and Jane Sheridan, were
crouching behind an
overturned desk. Like children
caught red-handed in some
mischief, they watched Wilder
as he beckoned theatrically
towards them.
Holding the alsatian on a short
leash, Royal pushed back the
glass doors. He strode through
Page 292
the residents in the lobby, who
were now happily breaking up
the children’s desks.
“It’s all right, Wilder,” he
called out in a firm but casual
voice. “I’ll take over.”
He stepped past Wilder and
entered the classroom. He
lifted Anne to her feet. “I’ll get
you out of here—don’t worry
about Wilder.”
“I’m not . . .” For all her
ordeal, Anne was remarkably
unruffled. She gazed at Wilder
with evident admiration. “My
God, he’s rather insane . . .”
Royal waited for Wilder to
Page 293
attack him. Despite the twenty
years between them, he felt
calm and self-controlled ready
for the physical confrontation.
But Wilder made no attempt
to move. He watched Royal
with interest, patting one
armpit in an almost animal
way, as if glad to see Royal
here on the lower levels,
directly involved at last in the
struggle for territory and
womenfolk. His shirt was open
to the waist, exposing a
barrel-like chest that he
showed off with some pride.
He held the cine-camera
Page 294
against his cheek as if he were
visualizing the setting and
choreography of a complex
duel to be fought at some more
convenient time on a stage
higher in the building.
That night, when they had
returned to their apartment on
the 40thfloor, Royal set about
asserting his leadership of the
topmost levels of the high-rise.
First, while his wife and Jane
Sheridan rested together in
Anne’s bed, Royal attended to
the alsatian. He fed the dog in
the kitchen with the last of its
Page 295
food. The wounds on its
shoulders and head were as
hard as coins. Royal was more
aroused by the injuries to the
dog than by any indignity
suffered by his wife. He had
almost made Anne’s ordeal
certain by deliberately
postponing his search for her.
As he expected, she and Jane
had been unable to find an
elevator when they had
finished shopping at the
supermarket. After being
molested in the lobby by a
drunken sound-man they had
taken refuge in the deserted
Page 296
classroom.
“They’re all making their own
films down there,” Anne told
him, clearly fascinated by her
heady experience of the lower
orders at work and play.
“Every time someone gets
beaten up about ten cameras
are shooting away.”
“They’re showing them in the
projection theatre,” Jane
confirmed. “Crammed in
there together seeing each
other’s rushes.”
“Except for Wilder. He’s
waiting for something really
gruesome.”
Page 297
Both women turned without
thinking to look at Royal, but
he took this in his stride. In an
obscure way, it was his
affection for Anne that had led
him to display her to his
neighbours below, his
contribution to the new realm
they would create together. By
contrast, the alsatian belonged
to a more practical world.
Already he knew that the dog
might well prove useful, be
more easily bartered than any
woman, in the future that lay
ahead. He decided not to
throw away the bloodstained
Page 298
jacket, glad to wear the dog’s
blood against his chest. He
refused any offers to clean it
from the wives of his fellow
residents who came in to
comfort the two young women.
The assaults on the alsatian,
and on Royal’s wife, made his
apartment a natural focus of
his neighbours’ decision to
regain the initiative before
they were trapped on the roof
of the high-rise. To
Pangbourne he explained that
it was vital for them to enlist
the support of the tenants
living on the floors
Page 299
immediately below the 35th.
“To survive, we need allies as
a buffer against any attacks
from the lower levels, and also
to give us access to more of the
elevators. We’re in danger of
being cut off from the central
mass of the building.”
“Right,” the gynaecologist
agreed, glad to see that Royal
had at last woken up to the
realities of then: position.
“Once we’ve gained a foothold
there we can play these people
off against those lower
down—in short balkanize the
centre section and then begin
Page 300
the colonization of the entire
building . . .”
In retrospect, it surprised
Royal how easily they were
able to implement these
elementary schemes. At nine
o’clock, before the evening’s
parties began, Royal began to
enlist the support of the
residents below the 35th-floor
swimming-pool. Expertly,
Pangbourne played on their
grievances. These people
shared many of the problems
of the top-floor tenants—their
cars had also been damaged,
Page 301
and they had the same
struggles with the declining
water-supply and
air-conditioning. In a
calculated gesture, Royal and
Pangbourne offered them the
use of the top-floor elevators.
To reach their apartments
they would no longer have to
enter the main lobby and run
the gauntlet of thirty
intervening floors. They would
now wait for a top-level tenant
to appear, enter the private
lobby with him and ride
straight to the 35thfloor
without harassment, and then
Page 302
walk the few steps down to
their apartments.
The offer was accepted, Royal
and Pangbourne deliberately
asking for no concessions in
return. The deputation
returned to the 4oth floor, the
members dispersing to their
apartments to prepare for the
evening’s festivities. During
the previous hour a few trivial
incidents had occurred—the
middle-aged wife of a
28th-floor account-executive
had been knocked unconscious
into the half-empty
swimming-pool, and a
Page 303
radiologist from the 7thfloor
had been beaten up among the
driers in the hairdressing
salon—but in general
everything within the high-rise
was normal. As the night
progressed, the sounds of
continuous revelry filled the
building. Beginning with the
lower floors, the parties
spread upwards through the
apartment block, investing it
in an armour of light and
festivity. Standing on his
balcony, Royal listened to the
ascending music and laughter
as he waited for the two young
Page 304
women to dress. Far below
him, a car drove along the
access road to the nearby
high-rise, its three occupants
looking up at the hundreds of
crowded balconies. Anyone
seeing this ship of lights would
take for granted that the two
thousand people on board
lived together in a state of
corporate euphoria.
Invigorated by this tonic
atmosphere, Anne and Jane
Sheridan had made a rapid
recovery. Anne no longer
referred to their leaving the
high-rise, and seemed to have
Page 305
forgotten that she had ever
made the decision to go. The
rough and tumble in the junior
school had given her that
previously missing sense of
solidarity with the other
tenants of the high-rise. In the
future, violence would clearly
become a valuable form of
social cement. As Royal
escorted her to the first party
of the evening, given by a
newspaper columnist on the
37thfloor, she and Jane
strolled arm in arm, buoyed
up by reports of further
confrontations, and by the
Page 306
news that two more floors, the
6thand 14th, were now in
darkness.
Pangbourne congratulated
Royal on this, almost as if he
believed that Royal was
responsible. No one, even on
the top floors, seemed aware
of the contrast between the
well-groomed revellers and the
dilapidated state of the
building. Along corridors
strewn with uncollected
garbage, past blocked disposal
chutes and vandalized
elevators, moved men in
well-tailored dinner-jackets.
Page 307
Elegant women lifted long
skirts to step over the debris of
broken bottles. The scents of
expensive after-shave lotions
mingled with the aroma of
kitchen wastes.
These bizarre contrasts
pleased Royal, marking the
extent to which these civilized
and self-possessed professional
men and women were moving
away from any notion of
rational behaviour. He thought
of his own confrontation with
Wilder, which summed up all
the forces in collision within
the high-rise. Wilder had
Page 308
obviously begun his ascent of
the building again, and had
climbed as far as the
15thfloor. By rights the
high-rise should be totally
deserted except for Wilder
and himself. The real duel
would be resolved among the
deserted corridors and
abandoned apartments of the
building inside their heads,
watched only by the birds.
Now that she had accepted it,
the threat of violence in the air
had matured Anne. Standing
by the fireplace in the
columnist’s drawing-room,
Page 309
Royal watched her with
affection. She was no longer
flirting with the elderly
businessmen and young
entrepreneurs, but listening
intently to Dr Pangbourne, as
if aware that the gynaecologist
might be useful to her in more
ways than the purely
professional. Despite his
pleasure in displaying her to
the other residents, Royal felt
far more protective of her.
This sexual territoriality
extended to Jane Sheridan.
“Have you thought about
moving in with us?” he asked
Page 310
her. “Your own apartment is
very much exposed.”
“I’d like to—Anne did
mention it. I’ve already
brought some things over.”
Royal danced with her in the
garbage-stacked hallway,
openly feeling her strong hips
and thighs, as if this inventory
established his claim to these
portions of her body at a
future date.
Hours later, at some period
after midnight when it seemed
to Royal that these parties had
been going on for ever, he
Page 311
found himself drunk in an
empty apartment on the
39thfloor. He was lying back
on a settee with Jane against
his shoulder, surrounded by
tables loaded with dirty
glasses and ashtrays, all the
debris of a party abandoned
by its guests. The music from
the balconies nearby was
overlaid by the noise of
sporadic acts of violence.
Somewhere a group of
residents was shouting in a
desultory way, hammering on
the doors of an elevator shaft.
A power failure had switched
Page 312
out the lights. Royal lay back
in the darkness, steadying his
slowly rotating brain against
the illumination of the nearby
high-rise. Without thinking, he
began to caress Jane, stroking
her heavy breasts. She made
no attempt to pull herself
away from him. A few
moments later, when the
electric power returned,
lighting up a single table-lamp
lying on the floor of the
balcony, she recognized Royal
and settled herself across him.
Hearing a noise from the
kitchen, Royal looked round to
Page 313
see his wife sitting at the table
in her long gown, one hand on
the electric coffee-percolator
as it began to warm. Royal put
his arms around Jane and
embraced her with deliberate
slowness, as if repeating for his
wife’s benefit a slow-motion
playback. He knew that Anne
could see them, but she sat
quietly at the kitchen table,
lighting a cigarette. During the
sexual act that followed she
watched them without
speaking, as if she approved,
not from any fashionable
response to marital infidelity,
Page 314
but from what Royal realized
was a sense of tribal solidarity,
a complete deference to the
clan leader.
10/The Drained Lake
Soon after dawn the next
morning, Robert Laing sat on
his balcony on the 25thfloor,
Page 315
eating a frugal breakfast and
listening to the first sounds of
activity in the apartments
around him. Already a few
residents were leaving the
building on their way to work,
picking their way through the
debris underfoot towards their
garbage-speckled cars. Several
hundred people still left each
day for their offices and
studios, airports and
auction-rooms. Despite the
scarcity of water and heating,
the men and women were well
dressed and groomed, their
appearance giving no hint of
Page 316
the events of the previous
weeks. However, without
realizing it, many of them
would spend much of their
time at their offices asleep at
their desks.
Laing ate his slice of bread
with methodical slowness.
Sitting there on the cracked
balcony tiles, he felt like a
poor pilgrim who had set out
on a hazardous vertical
journey and was performing a
simple but meaningful ritual
at a wayside shrine.
The previous night had
brought total chaos—drunken
Page 317
parties, brawls, the looting of
empty apartments and
assaults on any isolated
resident. Several more floors
were now in darkness,
including the 22nd, where his
sister Alice lived. Hardly
anyone had slept. Amazingly,
few people showed any signs of
fatigue, as if the economy of
their lives was switching from
day to night. Laing
half-suspected that the
insomnia so many of his
neighbours had suffered had
been some kind of unconscious
preparation for the emergency
Page 318
ahead. He himself felt alert
and confident—despite the
bruises on his shoulders and
arms, he was physically in fine
trim. At eight o’clock he
intended to clean himself up
and leave for the medical
school.
Laing had spent the early part
of the night straightening
Charlotte Melville’s
apartment, which had been
ransacked by intruders while
she and her small son were
sheltering with friends. Later,
he had helped to guard an
elevator which his neighbours
Page 319
had seized for a few hours. Not
that they had gone
anywhere—having
commandeered the elevator
what mattered was to hold it
for an effective psychological
interval.
The evening had begun, as
usual, with a party held by
Paul Crosland, television
newsreader and now clan
chief. Crosland had been
delayed at the studios, but his
guests watched him deliver the
nine-o’clock news, speaking in
his familiar, well-modulated
voice about a rush-hour
Page 320
pile-up in which six people had
died. As his neighbours stood
around the television set,
Laing waited for Crosland to
refer to the equally calamitous
events taking place in the
high-rise, the death of the
jeweller (now totally
forgotten), and the division of
the tenants into rival camps.
Perhaps, at the end of the
newscast, he would add a
special message for his clan
members at that moment
fixing their drinks among the
plastic rubbish-sacks in his
living-room.
Page 321
By the time Crosland arrived,
swerving into the apartment in
his fleece-lined jacket and
boots like a returning bomber
pilot, everyone was drunk.
Flushed and excited, Eleanor
Powell swayed up to Laing,
pointing hilariously at him and
accusing him of trying to
break into her apartment.
Everyone cheered this news, as
if rape was a valuable and
well-tried means of bringing
clan members together.
“A low crime-rate, doctor,”
she told him amiably, “is a
sure sign of social
Page 322
deprivation.”
Drinking steadily and without
any self-control, Laing felt the
alcohol bolt through his head.
He knew that he was
deliberately provoking
himself, repressing any
reservations about the good
sense of people such as
Crosland. On a practical level,
being drunk was almost the
only way of getting close to
Eleanor Powell. Sober, she
soon became tiresomely
maudlin, wandering about the
corridors in a vacant way as if
she had lost the key to her own
Page 323
mind. After a few cocktails she
was hyper-animated, and
flicked on and off like a
confused TV monitor
revealing glimpses of
extraordinary programmes
which Laing could only
understand when he was
drunk himself. Although she
kept overruling everything he
said, tripping over the plastic
garbage-sacks under the bar,
he held her upright, excited by
the play of her hands across
his lapels. Not for the first
time Laing reflected that he
and his neighbours were eager
Page 324
for trouble as the most
effective means of enlarging
their sex lives.
Laing emptied the
coffee-percolator over the edge
of the balcony. A greasy spray
hung across the face of the
building, the residue of the
cascade of debris now heaved
over the side without a care
whether the wind would carry
it into the apartments below.
He carried his breakfast tray
into the kitchen. The
continuing failure of the
electricity supply had
Page 325
destroyed the food in the
refrigerator. Bottles of sour
milk stood in a mould-infested
line. Rancid butter dripped
through the grilles. The smell
of this rotting food was not
without its appeal, but Laing
opened a plastic sack and
scooped everything into it. He
slung the sack into the
corridor, where it lay in the
dim light with a score of
others.
A group of his neighbours was
arguing in the elevator lobby,
voices raised. A minor
confrontation was developing
Page 326
between them and the
28th-floor residents. Crosland
was bellowing aggressively
into the empty elevator shaft.
Usually, at this early hour of
the day, Laing would have
paid no attention to him. Too
often Crosland had no idea
what he was arguing
about—confrontation was
enough. Without his make-up,
the expression of outrage on
his face made Crosland
resemble an announcer tricked
for the first time into reading
an item of bad news about
himself.
Page 327
From the shadows outside his
door the orthodontic surgeon
emerged with studied
casualness. Steele and his
hard-faced wife had been
standing among the
garbage-sacks for some time,
keeping an eye on everything.
He sidled up to Laing and took
his arm in a gentle but
complex grip, the kind of hold
he might have used for an
unusual extraction. He pointed
to the floors above.
“They want to seal the doors
permanently,” he explained.
“They’re going to re-wire two
Page 328
of the elevator circuits so that
they move non-stop from the
ground floor to the 28th.”
“What about the rest of us?”
Laing asked. “How do we
leave the building?”
“My dear Laing, I don’t
suppose they care very much
about us. Their real intention
is to divide the building in
half—here, at the 25thfloor.
This is a key level for the
electrical services. By
knocking out the three floors
below us they will have a
buffer zone separating the top
half of the building from the
Page 329
lower. Let’s make sure,
doctor, that when this happens
we are on the right side of the
buffers . . .”
He broke off as Laing’s sister
approached, carrying her
electric coffee-pot. With a
bow, Steele moved away
through the shadows, his small
feet stepping deftly among the
garbage sacks, the centre
parting of hair gleaming in the
faint light. Laing watched him
slide noiselessly into his
apartment. No doubt Steele
would pick his way with equal
skill through the hazards
Page 330
ahead. He never left the
building now, Laing had
noticed. What had happened
to that ruthless ambition?
After the battles of the past
weeks he was presumably
banking on an imminent
upsurge in the demand for
advanced surgery of the
mouth.
As Laing greeted Alice he
realized that she too would be
excluded if the surgeon was
right, living in the darkness on
the wrong side of the dividing
line with her alcoholic
husband. She had come up
Page 331
ostensibly to plug her
coffeepot into the power point
in Laing’s kitchen, but when
they entered the apartment
she left it absently on the hall
table. She walked on to the
balcony and stared into the
morning air, as if glad to have
the three extra floors beneath
her.
“How is Charles?” Laing
asked. “Is he at the office?”
“No . . . He’s taken some leave.
Terminal, if you ask me. What
about you? You shouldn’t
neglect your students. At the
present rate we’re going to
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need every one of them.”
“I’m going in this morning.
Would you like me to have a
look at Charles on my way ?”
Alice ignored this offer. She
grasped the handrail and
began to rock herself like a
child. “It’s peaceful up here.
Robert, you’ve no idea what
it’s like for most people.”
Laing laughed aloud, amused
by Alice’s notion that
somehow he had been
unaffected by events in the
high-rise—the typical
assumption of a martyred
older sister forced during her
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childhood to look after a much
younger brother.
“Come whenever you want
to.” Laing put his arm around
her shoulders, steadying her in
case she lost her balance. In
the past he had always felt
physically distanced from
Alice by her close resemblance
to their mother, but for
reasons not entirely sexual this
resemblance now aroused him.
He wanted to touch her hips,
place his hand over her breast.
As if aware of this, she leaned
passively against him.
“Use my kitchen this evening,”
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Laing told her. “From what
I’ve heard, everything is going
to be chaotic. You’ll be safer
here.”
“All right—but your
apartment is so dirty.”
“I’ll clean it for you.”
Checking himself, Laing
looked down at his sister. Did
she realize what was
happening? Without intending
to, they were arranging an
assignation.
All over the high-rise people
were packing their bags,
readying themselves for short
but significant journeys, a few
Page 335
floors up or down, laterally to
the other end of a corridor. A
covert but nonetheless
substantial movement of
marital partners was taking
place. Charlotte Melville was
now involved with a
statistician on the 29thfloor,
and had almost vacated her
apartment. Laing had watched
her leave without resentment.
Charlotte needed someone
who would bring out her
forcefulness and grit.
Thinking about her, Laing felt
a pang of regret that he
himself had found no one. But
Page 336
perhaps Alice would give him
the practical support he
needed, with her now
unfashionable dedication to
the domestic virtues. Although
he disliked her shrewish
manner, with its unhappy
reminders of their mother, it
gave him an undeniable sense
of security.
Holding her shoulders, he
looked up at the roof of the
high-rise. It seemed months
since he had last visited the
observation deck, but for the
first time he felt no urge to do
so. He would build his
Page 337
dwelling-place where he was,
with this woman and in this
cave in the cliff face.
When his sister had gone,
Laing began to prepare for his
visit to the medical school.
Sitting on the kitchen floor, he
looked up at the unwashed
plates and utensils stacked in
the sink. He was leaning
comfortably against a plastic
sack filled with rubbish.
Seeing the kitchen from this
unfamiliar perspective, he
realized how derelict it had
become. The floor was strewn
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with debris, scraps of food and
empty cans. To his surprise,
Laing counted six
garbage-sacks—for some
reason he had assumed that
there was only one.
Laing wiped his hands on his
dirt-stained trousers and shirt.
Reclining against this soft bed
of his own waste, he felt like
going to sleep. With an effort
he roused himself. A
continuous decline had been
taking place for some time, a
steady erosion of standards
that affected, not only the
apartment, but his own
Page 339
personal habits and hygiene.
To some extent this was forced
on him by the intermittent
water and electricity supply,
the failure of the
garbage-disposal system. But
it also reflected a falling
interest in civilized
conventions of any kind. None
of his neighbours cared what
food they ate. Neither Laing
nor his friends had prepared a
decent meal for weeks, and
had reached the point where
they opened a can at random
whenever they felt hungry. By
the same token, no one cared
Page 340
what they drank, interested
only in getting drunk as
quickly as possible and
blunting whatever sensibilities
were left to them. Laing had
not played one of his carefully
built-up library of records for
weeks. Even his language had
begun to coarsen.
He picked at the thick rims of
dirt under his nails. This
decline, both of himself and his
surroundings, was almost to
be welcomed. In a way he was
forcing himself down these
steepening gradients, like
someone descending into a
Page 341
forbidden valley. The dirt on
his hands, his stale clothes and
declining hygiene, his fading
interest in food and drink, all
helped to expose a more real
version of himself.
Laing listened to the
intermittent noises from the
refrigerator. The electricity
had come on again, and the
machine was sucking current
from the mains. Water began
to trickle from the taps as the
pumps started to work.
Spurring himself on with
Alice’s criticisms, Laing
wandered around the
Page 342
apartment, doing what he
could to straighten the
furniture. But half an hour
later, as he carried a
garbage-sack from the kitchen
into the hallway, he suddenly
stopped. He dropped the sack
on to the floor, realizing that
he had achieved nothing—all
he was doing was rearranging
the dirt.
Far more important was the
physical security of the
apartment, particularly while
he was away. Laing strode
down the long bookcase in the
sitting-room, pulling his
Page 343
medical and scientific
text-books on to the floor.
Section by section, he
wrenched out the shelving. He
carried the planks into the
hall, and for the next hour
moved around the apartment,
transforming its open interior
into a home-made blockhouse.
All pieces of heavy furniture,
the dining-table and a
hand-carved oak chest in his
bedroom, he pulled into the
hall. With the armchairs and
desk he constructed a solid
barricade. When he was
satisfied with this he moved
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his food supplies from the
kitchen into the bedroom. His
resources were meagre, but
would keep him going for
several days—bags of rice,
sugar and salt, cans of beef
and pork, and a stale loaf of
bread.
Now that the air-conditioning
had ceased, the rooms soon
became stuffy. Recently Laing
had noticed a strong but not
unpleasant smell, the
characteristic odour of the
apartment—himself.
Laing stripped off his grimy
sports-shirt and washed
Page 345
himself in the last water
flowing from the shower. He
shaved and put on a fresh shirt
and suit. If he visited the
medical school looking like a
tramp he might give away to
some sharp-eyed colleague
what was actually going on in
the high-rise. He examined
himself in the wardrobe
mirror. The gaunt,
white-skinned figure with a
bruised forehead standing
awkwardly in an over-large
business suit looked totally
unconvincing, like a
discharged convict in his
Page 346
release suit blinking at the
unfamiliar daylight after a
long prison-sentence.
After tightening the bolts on
the front door, Laing let
himself out of the apartment.
Fortunately, leaving the
high-rise was easier than
moving around within it. Like
an unofficial subway service,
one elevator still travelled by
mutual consent to and from
the main entrance lobby
during office hours. However,
the atmosphere of tension and
hostility, the complex of
Page 347
overlapping internal sieges,
was apparent everywhere.
Barricades of lobby furniture
and plastic sacks filled with
garbage blocked the entrances
to individual floors. Not only
the lobby and corridor walls,
but the ceilings and carpets
were covered with slogans, a
jumble of coded signals that
marked the attacks of raiding
parties from floors above and
below. Laing had to restrain
himself from pencilling the
number of his own floor
among the numerals, some
three feet high, emblazoned
Page 348
across the walls of the elevator
car like the entries in a lunatic
ledger. Almost everything
possible had been
vandalized—lobby mirrors
fractured, pay-phones torn
out, sofa upholstery slashed.
The degree of vandalism was
deliberately excessive, almost
as if it served a more
important secondary role,
disguising the calculated way
in which the residents of the
high-rise, by ripping out all
the phone lines, were cutting
themselves off from the
outside world.
Page 349
For a few hours each day a
system of informal truce
routes opened like fracture
lines throughout the building,
but this period was becoming
progressively shorter.
Residents moved around the
building in small groups,
sharply on the look-out for
any strangers. Each of them
wore his floor-level on his face
like a badge. During this brief
armistice of four or five hours
they could move about,
contestants in a ritualized
ladder-battle allowed between
bouts to mount the rungs of
Page 350
their pre-ordained ranks.
Laing and his fellow
passengers waited as the car
made its slow descent, frozen
together like mannequins in a
museum tableau—“late
twentieth-century high-rise
dweller”.
When they reached the ground
floor Laing walked cautiously
through the entrance, past the
shuttered manager’s office
and the sacks of unsorted
mail. He had not been to the
medical school for days, and
as he stepped through the
glass doors he was struck
Page 351
immediately by the cooler
light and air, like the harsh
atmosphere of an alien planet.
A sense of strangeness, far
more palpable than anything
within the building, extended
around the apartment block
on all sides, reaching across
the concrete plazas and
causeways of the development
project.
Looking over his shoulder, as
if maintaining a mental
life-line to the building, Laing
walked across the parking-lot.
Hundreds of broken bottles
and cans lay among the cars.
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A health engineer from the
central office of the project
had called the previous day
but left within half an hour,
satisfied that these signs of
breakdown were no more than
teething troubles in the
building’s waste-disposal
system. As long as the
residents made no formal
complaint, no action would be
taken. Laing was no longer
surprised by the way in which
the residents, who only a few
weeks earlier had been united
in their anger over the
breakdown of the building’s
Page 353
services, were now just as
united in assuring any
outsiders that all was
well—partly out of a displaced
pride in the high-rise, but also
out of a need to resolve the
confrontation between them
without interference, like rival
gangs battling across a refuse
tip who joined forces to expel
any intruder.
Laing reached the centre of
the parking-lot, only two
hundred yards from the
neighbouring high-rise, a
sealed rectilinear planet whose
glassy face he could now see
Page 354
clearly. Almost all the new
tenants had moved into their
apartments, duplicating to the
last curtain fabric and
dish-washer those in his own
block, but this building
seemed remote and
threatening. Looking up at the
endless tiers of balconies, he
felt uneasily like a visitor to a
malevolent zoo, where terraces
of vertically mounted cages
contained creatures of random
and ferocious cruelty. A few
people leaned on their railings
and watched Laing without
expression, and he had a
Page 355
sudden image of the two
thousand residents springing
to their balconies and hurling
down at him anything to hand,
inundating Laing beneath a
pyramid of wine bottles and
ashtrays, deodorant aerosols
and contraceptive wallets.
Laing reached his car and
leaned against the window
pillar. He knew that he was
testing himself against the
excitements of the world
outside, exposing himself to its
hidden dangers. For all its
present conflict, the high-rise
represented safety and
Page 356
security. Feeling the warm
cellulose of the window pillar
against his shoulder, Laing
remembered the stale air in
his apartment, tepid with the
smell of his own body. By
comparison, the brilliant light
reflected off the chromium
trim of the hundreds of cars
filled the air with knives.
He turned away from his car,
and walked along the parking
lane that ran parallel to the
apartment building. He was
not ready yet to venture into
the open air, face his
colleagues at the medical
Page 357
school, catch up with the lost
student supervisions. Perhaps
he would stay at home that
afternoon and prepare his
notes for his next lecture.
He reached the edge of the
ornamental lake, a graceful
oval two hundred yards in
length, and stepped down on
to the concrete floor.
Following his shadow, he
walked along the gently
sloping lake-bed. Within a few
minutes he was standing in the
centre of the empty lake. The
damp concrete, like the
surface of an enormous mould,
Page 358
curved away on all sides,
smooth and bland, but in some
way as menacing as the
contours of some deep
reductive psychosis. The
absence of any kind of rigid
rectilinear structure summed
up for Laing all the hazards of
the world beyond the
high-rise.
Unable to stay there any
longer, he turned and strode
swiftly towards the shore,
climbed the bank and ran
towards the apartment
building between the dusty
cars.
Page 359
Within ten minutes he had
returned to his apartment.
After bolting the door, he
climbed over his barricade
and wandered around the
half-empty rooms. As he
inhaled the stale air he was
refreshed by his own odour,
almost recognizing parts of his
body—his feet and genitalia,
the medley of smells that
issued from his mouth. He
stripped off his clothes in the
bedroom, throwing his suit
and tie into the bottom of the
closet and putting on again his
Page 360
grimy sports-shirt and
trousers. He knew now that he
would never again try to leave
the high-rise. He was thinking
about Alice, and how he could
bring her to his apartment. In
some way these powerful
odours were beacons that
would draw her to him.
Page 361
11/Punitive Expeditions
By four o’clock that afternoon
the last of the residents had
returned to the high-rise.
From his balcony Laing
watched their cars appear on
the approach roads and turn
into their spaces in the
parking-lot. Briefcases in
hand, the drivers made their
way to the entrance lobbies.
Laing was relieved that all
conversation ended when they
neared the building. This
civilized behaviour in some
way unsettled him.
Page 362
Laing had rested during the
afternoon, deciding to calm
himself and gather his
strength for the night to come.
At intervals he climbed over
the barricade and peered into
the corridor, hoping to catch
sight of Steele. Laing’s concern
for his sister, only three floors
below with her twilight
husband, made him
increasingly restless. He
needed an outbreak of violence
to provide a pretext to rescue
her. If the plan to divide the
building succeeded, he would
be unlikely to see her again.
Page 363
Laing paced around the
apartment, testing the
primitive defensive
preparations. Those residents
like himself on the upper
floors were more vulnerable
than they assumed, and might
easily find themselves at the
mercy of those on the lower
levels. Wilder and his
henchmen could easily block
the exits, destroy the electrical
and water-supply inputs, and
set fire to the upper floors.
Laing imagined the first
flames climbing through the
elevator shafts and staircases,
Page 364
floors collapsing as the
terrified residents were driven
to find refuge on the roof.
Unsettled by this lurid vision,
Laing disconnected his
stereo-speakers and added
them to the barricade of
furniture and kitchen
appliances. Records and
cassettes lay about underfoot,
but he kicked them out of his
way. At the base of his
bedroom wardrobe he prised
away the floorboards. In this
suitcase-sized cavity he hid
away his cheque book and
insurance policies, tax returns
Page 365
and share certificates. Lastly,
he forced in his medical case
with vials of morphine,
antibiotics and cardiac
stimulants. When he nailed the
floorboards back into place he
felt that he was sealing away
for ever the last residues of his
previous life, and preparing
himself without reservation for
the new one to come.
On the surface, the apartment
building remained quiet, but
much to Laing’s relief the first
incidents broke out by the
early evening. He waited in the
lobby through the late
Page 366
afternoon, standing about with
a group of his fellow residents.
Perhaps, insanely, nothing was
going to happen? Then a
foreign-affairs analyst arrived
with the news that there had
been a fierce scuffle over an
elevator ten floors below.
Adrian Talbot, the likeable
psychiatrist on the 27thfloor,
had been drenched in urine as
he climbed the stairs to his
apartment. There was even a
rumour that a 40th-floor
apartment had been
vandalized. Such an act of
provocation guaranteed them
Page 367
all a hot night.
This was followed by a spate
of reports that many residents
had returned home to find
their apartments ransacked,
furniture and kitchen
equipment damaged, electrical
fittings torn out. Oddly
enough, no food supplies had
been touched, as if these acts
of vandalism were deliberately
random and meaningless. Had
the damage been inflicted by
the owners themselves,
without realizing what they
were doing, in an attempt to
bring about an increase in
Page 368
violence ?
These incidents continued as
the evening settled over the
apartment building. From his
balcony Laing could see
torch-beams flicking to and
fro in the windows of the eight
blacked-out floors below, as if
signalling the preparations of
a brutal blood-rite. Laing sat
in the darkness on the
living-room carpet, his back
against the reassuring bulk of
the barricade. He was
reluctant to switch on the
lights, for fear—absurdly, as
he knew—that an assailant
Page 369
might attack him from the air
outside his balcony. Drinking
steadily from a hip-flask of
whisky, he watched the early
evening television
programmes. He turned down
the sound, not out of boredom
with these documentaries and
situation comedies, but
because they were
meaningless. Even the
commercials, with their
concern for the realities of
everyday life, were
transmissions from another
planet. Squatting among the
plastic garbage-sacks, his
Page 370
furniture piled up behind him,
Laing studied these lavish
reconstructions of housewives
cleaning their immaculate
kitchens, deodorants spraying
well-groomed armpits.
Together they formed the
elements of a mysterious
domestic universe.
Calm and unfrightened, Laing
listened to the strident voices
in the corridor. Thinking
about his sister, he welcomed
these signs of the violence to
come. Alice, always fastidious,
would probably be repelled by
the derelict state of the
Page 371
apartment, but it would do her
good to find something to
criticize. The sweat on Laing’s
body, like the plaque that
coated his teeth, surrounded
him in an envelope of dirt and
body odour, but the stench
gave him confidence, the
feeling that he had dominated
the terrain with the products
of his own body. Even the
prospect that the lavatory
would soon be permanently
blocked, something that had
once filled him with polite
dread, was now almost
inviting.
Page 372
This decline in standards of
hygiene Laing shared with his
neighbours. Emitted from
their bodies was a strong
scent, the unique signature of
the high-rise. The absence of
this odour was what most
unsettled him about the world
outside the apartment block,
though its nearest
approximation was to be
found in the dissecting-room
at the anatomy school. A few
days earlier Laing had caught
himself hanging about his
secretary’s desk, trying to get
close enough to her to detect
Page 373
this reassuring smell. The
startled girl had looked up to
find Laing hovering over her
like a beachcomber in rut.
Three floors above, a falling
bottle burst across a balcony.
The glass fragments spat away
like tracers through the
darkness. A record-player by
an open window was turned
up to full volume. Huge
fragments of amplified music
boomed into the night.
Laing climbed around his
barricade and unlocked the
door of his apartment. In the
Page 374
elevator lobby a group of his
neighbours were manhandling
a steel fire-door across the
entrance to the stairway. Five
floors below, a raid was in
progress. Laing and his fellow
clansmen crowded against the
fire-door, peering into the
darkened stairwell. They could
hear the elevator gear
reverberating as the car
moved up and down, ferrying
more attackers to the fray.
Rising from the 20thfloor, as if
from an execution pit, came a
woman’s scream.
Waiting for Steele to appear
Page 375
and help them, Laing was
about to go in search of him.
But the lobby and corridors
were filled with running
people, colliding into each
other in the dark as they
fought their way back to their
apartments on the floors
above the 25th. The raiders
had been hurled back.
Torch-beams swerved across
the walls in a lunatic
semaphore. Laing slipped in a
pool of grease and fell among
the swerving shadows. Behind
him, an excited woman
stepped on his hand, her heel
Page 376
cutting his wrist.
For the next two hours a series
of running battles took place
in the corridors and staircases,
moving up and down the
floors as the barricades were
reassembled and torn down
again. At midnight, as he
crouched in the elevator lobby
behind the overturned
fire-door, debating whether to
risk making a run for Alice’s
apartment, Laing saw Richard
Wilder standing among the
scattered steel chairs. In one
hand he still held his
cine-camera. Like a large
Page 377
animal pausing for breath, he
followed the huge projections
of himself cast upon the walls
and ceiling, as if about to leap
on to the backs of his own
shadows and ride them like a
troupe of beasts up the flues of
the building.
The confrontation subsided,
moving away like a storm
towards the lower floors.
Laing and his neighbours
assembled in Adrian Talbot’s
apartment. Here they sat on
the living-room floor among
the broken tables and the easy
chairs with their slashed
Page 378
cushions. The torches at their
feet formed a circle of light,
shining on the bottles of
whisky and vodka they shared
together.
Arm in a sling, the psychiatrist
moved around his vandalized
apartment, trying to hang the
shattered picture-frames over
the slogans aerosolled across
his walls in the supermarket
paint-section’s most
fashionable colours. Talbot
seemed more numbed by the
personal hostility in these
anti-homosexual obscenities
than by the wholesale
Page 379
destruction of his apartment,
but in spite of himself Laing
found them stimulating. The
lurid caricatures on the walls
glimmered in the torch-light
like the priapic figures drawn
by cave-dwellers.
“At least they’ve left you
alone,” Talbot said, crouching
beside Laing. “I’ve obviously
been picked out as a
scapegoat. This building must
have been a powerhouse of
resentments—everyone’s
working off the most
extraordinary backlog of
infantile aggressions.”
Page 380
“They’ll spend themselves.”
“Perhaps. I had a bucket of
urine thrown over me this
afternoon. Much more of that
and I may take up a cudgel
myself. It’s a mistake to
imagine that we’re all moving
towards a state of happy
primitivism. The model here
seems to be less the noble
savage than our un-innocent
post-Freudian selves, outraged
by all that over-indulgent
toilet-training, dedicated
breast-feeding and parental
affection—obviously a more
dangerous mix than anything
Page 381
our Victorian forebears had to
cope with. Our neighbours had
happy childhoods to a man
and still feel angry. Perhaps
they resent never having had a
chance to become perverse . .
.”
As they nursed their bruises
and passed around the bottles,
drinking steadily to build up
their courage, Laing listened
to the talk of counter-attack
and revenge. There was still no
sign of Steele. For some reason
Laing felt that he should have
been there, a future leader
more important to them than
Page 382
Crosland. In spite of his
injuries, Laing felt exhilarated
and confident, eager to return
to the fray. The darkness was
reassuring, providing its own
security, the natural medium
of their life in the apartment
building. He felt proud of
having learned how to move
around the pitch-black
corridors, never more than
three steps at a time, how to
pause and test the darkness,
and even the right way of
crossing his own apartment,
always keeping as close to the
floor as possible. He almost
Page 383
resented the daylight which
the following morning would
bring.
The true light of the high-rise
was the metallic flash of the
polaroid camera, that
intermittent radiation which
recorded a moment of
hoped-for violence for some
later voyeuristic pleasure.
What depraved species of
electric flora would spring to
life from the garbage-strewn
carpets of the corridors in
response to this new source of
light? The floors were littered
with the blackened negative
Page 384
strips, flakes falling from this
internal sun.
Muddled by alcohol and
excitement, Laing clambered
to his feet with his neighbours
as they set off like a crowd of
drunken students, brawling
with each other to keep up
their courage. By the time they
had descended three floors in
the darkness Laing had lost
his bearings. They had entered
an enclave of abandoned
apartments on the 22ndfloor.
They wandered around the
deserted rooms, kicking in the
faces of the television sets,
Page 385
breaking up the kitchen
crockery.
Trying to clear his head before
going to rescue his sister,
Laing vomited over a balcony
rail. The threads of luminous
phlegm fell away across the
face of the building. Leaning
there in the darkness, he
listened to his neighbours
moving along the corridor.
When they had gone he would
be able to look for Alice.
Behind him the electric lights
came on. Startled, Laing
flinched against the parapet,
expecting an intruder to attack
Page 386
him. After a brief interval, the
lights began to flicker
continuously like a fibrillating
heart. Laing looked down at
his grimy clothes and
vomit-stained hands. The
vandalized living-room
glimmered around him, the
floor strewn with debris as if
he had woken on a battlefield.
In the bedroom a broken
mirror lay on the bed, the
pieces flickering like the
fragments of another world
trying unsuccessfully to
reconstitute itself.
“Come in, Laing . . .” The
Page 387
familiar precise voice of the
orthodontic surgeon called out
to him. “There’s something
interesting here.”
Steele was circling the room
with a sword-stick in one
hand. Now and then he feinted
at the floor in a teasing way, as
if rehearsing a scene from a
melodrama. He beckoned
Laing forward into the
stuttering light.
Laing cautiously approached
the door, glad to see Steele at
last but well aware of how
exposed he was to any passing
whim of his. He assumed that
Page 388
Steele had trapped the
apartment’s owner, or a
vagrant resident who had
taken shelter here, but there
was no one in the room. Then,
following the blade of the
sword-stick, he saw that Steele
had cornered a small cat
between the legs of the
dressing-table. Steele lunged
forward, twirling a brocade
curtain he had wrenched from
the window, and whirled the
terrified creature into the
bathroom.
“Wait, doctor!” The surgeon’s
voice was infused with a
Page 389
strangely cold gaiety, like an
erotic machine’s. “Don’t leave
yet . . .”
The lights continued to flicker
with the harsh over-reality of
an atrocity newsreel. Confused
by his own response, Laing
watched Steele manipulate the
cat under the curtain. By some
ugly logic the dentist’s
pleasure in tormenting the
creature was doubled by the
presence of a squeamish but
fascinated witness. Laing
stood in the bathroom
doorway, hoping despite
himself that the lights would
Page 390
not fail again. He waited as
Steele calmly smothered the
cat, destroying it under the
curtain as if carrying out a
complex resuscitation under a
hospital blanket.
Pulling himself away at last,
Laing left without speaking.
He moved carefully along the
darkened corridor, as the
lights flickered from the
doorways of ransacked
apartments, from overturned
lamps lying on the floor and
television screens brought
back to a last intermittent life.
A faint music played
Page 391
somewhere around him. An
abandoned record turntable
was spinning again. In an
empty bedroom a
cine-projector screened the
last feet of a pornographic film
on to the wall facing the bed.
When he reached Alice’s
apartment Laing hesitated,
uncertain how to explain his
presence. But as his sister
opened the door and beckoned
him in he saw immediately
that she had known he was
coming. Two suitcases, already
packed, stood in the
Page 392
living-room. Alice walked to
the door of her bedroom for
the last time. In the yellow,
intermittent light Frobisher
was slumped asleep on the
bed, a half-empty case of
whisky beside him.
Alice took Laing’s arm.
“You’re late,” she said
reprovingly. “I’ve been
waiting for hours.” As they left
she made no attempt to look
back at her husband. Laing
remembered Alice and himself
at home years earlier, and how
once they had slipped out of
the drawing-room in the same
Page 393
way as their mother lay
unconscious on the floor after
injuring herself during a
drinking bout.
The sounds of a minor clash
echoed up the stairwell as they
made their way to the safety of
the darkness on the 25thfloor.
Fifteen floors, including
Laing’s own, were now
permanently without light.
Like a storm reluctant to end,
recapitulating itself at
intervals, the violence rumbled
on throughout the night as
Laing and his sister lay awake
together on the mattress in his
Page 394
bedroom.
12/Towards the Summit
Soon after two o’clock in the
afternoon four days later,
Richard Wilder returned from
his television station and drove
into the parking-lot beside the
high-rise. Reducing speed so
Page 395
that he could relish to the full
this moment of arrival, he sat
back comfortably behind the
wheel and looked up with a
confident eye at the face of the
apartment building. Around
him the long ranks of parked
cars were covered with a
thickening layer of dirt and
cement dust, blown across the
open plazas of the
development project from the
road junction under
construction behind the
medical centre. Few cars now
left the parking-lot, and there
were almost no free spaces,
Page 396
but Wilder drove up and down
the access lanes, stopping at
the end of each file and
reversing back to his starting
point.
Wilder fingered the freshly
healed scar on his unshaven
chin, relic of a vigorous
corridor battle the previous
night. Deliberately he
reopened the wound, and
glanced with satisfaction at the
point of blood on his finger.
He had driven from the
television station at speed, as if
trying to emerge from an
angry dream, shouting and
Page 397
sounding the horn at other
drivers in his way, cutting up
one-way streets. Now he felt
calm and relaxed. The first
sight of the line of five
apartment buildings soothed
him as usual, providing a
context of reality absent from
the studios.
Confident that he would find a
free space, Wilder continued
his patrol. Originally he had
parked, along with his
neighbours on the lower floors,
in the ranks along the
perimeter of the parking-lot,
but during the previous weeks
Page 398
he had been moving his car
nearer to the building. What
had begun as a harmless piece
of vanity—an ironic joke at his
own expense—had soon taken
on a more serious role, a
visible index of his success or
failure. After several weeks
dedicated to his ascent of the
building he felt entitled to
park in those files reserved for
his new neighbours. Ultimately
he would reach the front rank.
At the moment of his triumph,
when he climbed to the
40thfloor, his car would join
the line of expensive wrecks
Page 399
nearest to the apartment
block.
For several hours the previous
night Wilder had reached the
20thfloor and even, during the
few minutes of an unexpected
skirmish, the 25th. By dawn he
had been forced to retire from
this advance position to his
present base camp, an
apartment on the 17thfloor
owned by a stage manager at
the television station, a former
drinking companion named
Hillman who had grudgingly
accepted this cuckoo in his
nest. The occupation of a floor,
Page 400
in Wilder’s strict sense of the
term, meant more than the
casual seizure of an
abandoned apartment. Dozens
of these were scattered
throughout the high-rise.
Wilder had imposed on
himself a harder definition of
ascent—he had to be accepted
by his new neighbours as one
of them, the holder of a
tenancy won by something
other than physical force. In
short, he insisted that they
need him—when he thought
about it, a notion that made
him snort.
Page 401
He had reached the 20thfloor
as a result of one of the many
demographic freaks that had
confused his progress through
the building. During the
running battles that had filled
the night he found himself
helping to barricade the
damaged door of an
apartment on the 20thfloor
owned by two women
stock-market analysts. After
trying to brain him with a
champagne bottle as he
pushed his head through the
broken panel, they had
welcomed Wilder’s easy-going
Page 402
offer to help—he deliberately
was never more calm than at
these moments of crisis. In
fact, the older of the two, a
spirited blonde of thirty, had
complimented Wilder on being
the only sane man she had met
in the high-rise. For his part,
Wilder was glad to play a
domestic role rather than the
populist leader and Bonaparte
of the elevator-lobby
barricades, instructing an
ill-trained militia of magazine
editors and finance company
executives in how to storm a
defended staircase or capture
Page 403
a rival elevator. Apart from
anything else, the higher up
the building he climbed, the
worse the physical condition of
the residents—hours on the
gymnasium exercycles had
equipped them for no more
than hours on the gymnasium
exercycles.
After helping the two women,
he spent the period before
dawn drinking their wine and
manoeuvring them into
making the suggestion that he
move into their apartment. As
usual, he gestured grandly
with his cine-camera and told
Page 404
them about his television
documentary on the high-rise,
inviting them to appear on
screen. But neither was
particularly impressed by the
offer. Although the lower-level
tenants were keen to take part
in the programme and vent
their grievances, the people
living on the upper floors had
appeared on television
already, often more than once,
as professional experts on
various current-affairs
programmes. “Television is
for watching, Wilder,” one of
the women told him firmly,
Page 405
“not for appearing on.”
Soon after dawn, the members
of a women’s raiding-party
appeared. Their husbands and
companions had either moved
in with friends on other floors
or exited from their lives
altogether. The leader of the
pack, the elderly
children’s-story writer, gazed
balefully at Wilder when he
offered her the starring role in
his documentary. Taking the
hint, Wilder bowed out and
returned to his previously
secure base, the Hillmans’
apartment on the 17thfloor.
Page 406
Thirty feet away, as Wilder
drove around the parking-lot,
determined to find a rank in
keeping with his new station, a
bottle shattered across a car
roof, vanishing in a brittle
cloud-burst. The bottle had
been dropped from a height,
conceivably from the
40thfloor. Wilder slowed his
car almost to a halt, offering
himself as a target. He half
expected to see the
white-jacketed figure of
Anthony Royal standing in one
of his messianic poses on the
Page 407
parapet of his penthouse, the
white alsatian at his heels.
During the past days he had
caught several glimpses of the
architect, standing high above
Wilder at the top of a
staircase, disappearing in a
commandeered elevator
towards the fastnesses of the
top floors. Without any doubt,
he was deliberately exposing
himself to Wilder, tempting
him upwards. At times Royal
seemed to be uncannily aware
of the confused image of his
natural father that hovered in
the attics of Wilder’s mind,
Page 408
glimpsed always in the high
windows of his nursery. Had
Royal set out to play this role,
knowing that Wilder’s
confusions about his father
would deflect his resolve to
climb the building? Wilder
drummed his heavy fists on
the steering wheel. Each night
he moved closer to Royal, a
few steps nearer their ultimate
confrontation.
Broken glass crackled under
his tyres, as if unzipping the
treads. Directly ahead of
Wilder, in the front rank
reserved for the top-floor
Page 409
residents, was a free space
once occupied by the dead
jeweller’s car. Without
hesitating, Wilder spun the
wheel and steered into the
open space.
“Not before time . . .”
He sat back expansively,
gazing with pleasure at the
garbage-strewn wrecks on
either side. The appearance of
the space was a good omen. He
took his time getting out of the
car, and slammed the door
aggressively. As he strode
towards the entrance he felt
like a well-to-do landowner
Page 410
who had just bought himself a
mountain.
In the entrance lobby a group
of down-at-heel 1st-floor
residents watched Wilder
stride past the elevators to the
stairway. They were suspicious
of his movements around the
building, his changing
allegiances. During the day
Wilder spent a few hours with
Helen and his sons in the and
floor apartment, trying to
rally his increasingly
withdrawn wife. Sooner or
later he would have to leave
her for ever. In the evenings,
Page 411
when he renewed his ascent of
the high-rise, she would come
alive a little, perhaps even
speak to him about his work at
the television studios, referring
to programmes on which he
had worked years before. The
previous night, as he prepared
to leave, settling his sons and
testing the locks on the doors,
Helen had suddenly embraced
him, as if wanting him to stay.
The muscles of her thin face
had moved through an
irregular sequence of tremors,
like tumblers trying to fall into
place.
Page 412
To Wilder’s surprise, when he
returned to the apartment he
found Helen in a state of high
excitement. He made his way
around the garbage-sacks and
barricades of broken furniture
that blocked the corridor.
Helen and a group of wives
were celebrating a minor
triumph. The tired women
with their unruly
children—the civil war within
the high-rise had made them
as combative as their
parents—formed a wistful
tenement tableau.
Page 413
Two young women from the
7thfloor, who had once worked
as teachers in the junior
school, had volunteered to
reopen the classes. From their
uneasy glances at the vigilante
group of three fathers—a
computer-time salesman, a
sound man and a
travel-agency
courier—standing between
them and the door Wilder
guessed that they were the
victims of a less than gentle
abduction.
As he prepared a meal from
the last of the canned food,
Page 414
Helen sat at the kitchen table,
her white hands moving about
like a pair of confused birds in
a cage.
“I can barely believe it—I’ll be
free of the boys for an hour or
two.”
“Where are these classes being
held ?”
“Here—for thenext two
mornings. It’s the least I can
do.”
“But you won’t be away from
the boys at all. Well,
anything’s better than
nothing/
Would she ever abandon the
Page 415
children? Wilder asked
himself. It was all she thought
about. As he played with his
sons he seriously considered
taking them with him on his
climb. He watched Helen
making a nervous effort to
tidy the apartment. The
living-room had been
ransacked during a raid.
While Helen and the boys
sheltered in a neighbour’s
apartment, most of the
furniture had been broken, the
kitchen kicked to a shambles.
Helen carried the wrecked
chairs from the dining-room,
Page 416
lining them up in front of
Wilder’s broken-backed desk.
The tilting chairs leaned
against each other in a
scarecrow parody of a
children’s classroom.
Wilder made no effort to help.
He watched her thin arms
dragging at the furniture. At
times he almost suspected that
she was deliberately
exhausting herself, and that
the bruises on her wrists and
knees were part of an
elaborate system of conscious
self-mutilation, an attempt to
win back her husband—each
Page 417
day when he returned home he
half expected to find her in an
invalid chair, legs broken and
trepan bandage around her
shaven head, about to take the
last desperate step of
lobotomy.
Why did he keep coming back
to her? His one ambition now
was to get away from Helen,
and overcome that need to
return to the apartment each
afternoon and whatever
threadbare links it maintained
with his own childhood. By
leaving Helen he would break
away from the whole system of
Page 418
juvenile restraints he had been
trying to shake off since his
adolescence. Even his
compulsive womanizing was
part of the same attempt to
free himself from the past, an
attempt that Helen brought to
nothing by turning a blind eye.
At least, however, his affairs
had prepared the ground for
his ascent of the high-rise,
those literal handholds which
would carry him on his climb
to the roof over the supine
bodies of the women he had
known.
He found it difficult now to
Page 419
feel much involvement with his
wife’s plight, or with her
neighbours and their narrow,
defeated lives. Already it was
clear that the lower floors
were doomed. Even their
insistence on educating their
children, the last reflex of any
exploited group before it sank
into submission, marked the
end of their resistance. Helen
was even being helped now by
the women’s group from the
29thfloor. During the noon
armistice the chil-dren’s-story
writer and her minions moved
through the apartment
Page 420
building, offering help to
abandoned or isolated wives,
sisters of sinister charity.
Wilder went into his sons’
bedroom. Glad to see Wilder,
they banged their empty
feeding-bowls with their
plastic machine-pistols. They
were dressed in miniature
paratroopers’ camouflage
suits and tin helmets—the
wrong outfit, Wilder reflected,
in the light of what had been
taking place in the high-rise.
The correct combat costume
was stockbroker’s pin-stripe,
briefcase and homburg.
Page 421
The boys were hungry. After
calling to Helen he returned to
the kitchen. Helen was
slumped on her knees in front
of the electric cooker. The
door was open, and Wilder
had the sudden notion that she
was trying to hide her small
body in the oven—perhaps
cook herself, the ultimate
sacrifice for her family.
“Helen . . .” He bent down,
surprised by the slightness of
her body, a collection of sticks
inside her pallid skin. “For
heaven’s sake, you’re like . . .”
“It’s all right . . . I’ll have
Page 422
something later.” She pulled
herself away from him, and
began to pick without thinking
at the burnt fat on the oven
floor. Looking down at her
huddled at his feet, Wilder
realized that she had
momentarily fainted from
hunger.
Wilder let her subside against
the cooker. He scanned the
empty shelves of the pantry.
“Stay here—I’ll go up to the
supermarket and get you
something to eat.” Angry with
her, he snapped, “Why didn’t
you tell me you were starving
Page 423
yourself?”
“Richard, I’ve mentioned it a
hundred times.”
She watched him from the
floor as he hunted in her purse
for money, something Wilder
had found less and less use for
recently. He had not even
bothered to pay his latest
salary cheque into his account.
He picked up his cine-camera,
making sure that the lens
shroud was in place. As he
looked back at Helen he
noticed that her eyes were
surprisingly hard within her
small face, almost as if she was
Page 424
amused by her husband’s
dependence on the fictions of
this elaborate toy.
Locking the apartment door
behind him, Wilder set off in
search of food and water.
During the afternoon lull, one
access route to the 10th-floor
supermarket was still allowed
the tenants in the lower section
of the apartment building.
Most of the stairways were
blocked by permanent
barricades—living-room
furniture, dining-tables and
washing-machines piled high
Page 425
between the steps and ceilings.
More than a dozen of the
twenty elevators were out of
order. The remainder
functioned intermittently, at
the whim of any superior clan.
In the lobby Wilder peered
cautiously up the empty shafts.
Sections of metal railing and
water pipes crisscrossed the
shafts, inserted like stop
indicators to prevent the cars
moving up or down, and
almost formed a staircase of
their own.
The walls were covered with
slogans and obscenities, lists of
Page 426
apartments to be vandalized
like an insane directory. By
the stairwell doors a
military-style message in sober
lettering pointed to the one
safe staircase to be used
during the early afternoon,
and the obligatory curfew
time, three o’clock.
Wilder raised his camera and
stared at the message through
the view-finder. The shot
would make a striking opening
title sequence for the
documentary on the high-rise.
He was still aware of the need
to make a visual record of
Page 427
what had happened within the
apartment building, but the
resolve had begun to fade. The
decline of the apartment
building reminded him of a
slow-motion newsreel of a
town in the Andes being
carried down the mountain
slopes to its death, the
inhabitants still hanging out
their washing in the
disintegrating gardens,
cooking in their kitchens as the
walls were pulverized around
them.
Twenty of the floors in the
high-rise were now in darkness
Page 428
at night, and over a hundred
apartments had been
abandoned by their owners.
The clan system, which had
once given a measure of
security to the residents, had
now largely broken down,
individual groups drifting into
apathy or paranoia.
Everywhere people were
retreating into their
apartments, even into one
room, and barricading
themselves away. At the
5thfloor landing Wilder
paused, surprised that there
was no one around. He waited
Page 429
by the lobby doors, listening
for any suspicious sound. The
tall figure of a middle-aged
sociologist, garbage-pail in
hand, emerged from the
shadows and drifted like a
ghost along the refuse-strewn
corridor.
For all the building’s derelict
state—almost no water was
flowing, the air-conditioning
vents were blocked with
garbage and excrement, rails
ripped off the staircase
balustrades—the behaviour of
the residents during the
daylight hours for the most
Page 430
part remained restrained. At
the 7th-floor landing Wilder
stopped and relieved himself
against the steps. In a way he
was surprised by the sight of
the urine running away
between his feet. However, this
was the mildest display of
crudity. During the brawls and
running battles of the night he
was aware that he took a
distinct and unguilty pleasure
in urinating wherever he
cared, defaecating in
abandoned apartments
regardless of the health
hazards to himself and his
Page 431
family. The previous night he
had enjoyed pushing around a
terrified woman who
remonstrated with him for
relieving himself on her
bathroom floor.
Nonetheless, Wilder welcomed
and understood the
night—only in the darkness
could one become sufficiently
obsessive, deliberately play on
all one’s repressed instincts.
He welcomed this forced
conscription of the deviant
strains in his character.
Happily, this free and
degenerate behaviour became
Page 432
easier the higher he moved up
the building, as if encouraged
by the secret logic of the
high-rise.
The 10th-floor concourse was
deserted. Wilder pushed back
the staircase doors with their
shattered glass and walked out
on to the shopping mall. The
bank had closed, along with
the hairdressing salon and the
liquor store. The last
supermarket cashier—the wife
of a cameraman on the
3rdfloor—sat stoically at her
check-out point, presiding like
Page 433
a doomed Britannia over a sea
of debris. Wilder strolled
around the empty shelves.
Rotting packs floated in the
greasy water at the bottom of
the freezer cabinets. In the
centre of the supermarket a
pyramid of dog-biscuit cartons
had collapsed across the aisle.
Wilder filled a basket with
three of the cartons and half a
dozen cans of cat-meat.
Together they would keep
Helen and the boys alive until
he could break into an
apartment and raid a food
cache.
Page 434
“There’s nothing here but pet
food,” he told the cashier at
the check-out. “Have you
stopped ordering?”
“There’s no demand,” she told
him. She played
absent-mindedly with an open
wound on her forehead.
“Everyone must have stocked
up months ago.”
This was not true, Wilder
reflected as he walked away
towards the elevator lobby,
leaving her alone on the huge
concourse. As he knew full
well, having broken into any
number of apartments, few
Page 435
people had any reserve
supplies whatever. It was as if
they were no longer giving any
thought to what they might
need the next day.
Fifty feet away, beyond the
overturned hair-driers lying
outside the salon, the elevator
indicator lights moved from
right to left. The last public
elevator of the day was
winding itself up the building.
Somewhere between the
25thand 30thfloors it would be
brought to a halt at the whim
of a look-out, marking the end
of the mid-day armistice and
Page 436
the beginnings of another
night.
Without thinking, Wilder
quickened his pace. He
reached the doors as the
elevator paused at the 9thfloor
to discharge a passenger. At
the last moment, as it resumed
its ascent, Wilder pressed the
button.
In the few seconds that
remained before the doors
opened he realized that he had
already decided to abandon
Helen and his sons for good.
Only one direction lay before
him—up. Like a climber
Page 437
resting a hundred feet from
the summit, he had no option
but to ascend.
The elevator doors opened.
Some fifteen passengers faced
him, standing rigidly together
like plastic mannequins. There
was a fractional movement of
feet as a space was made for
Wilder.
Wilder hesitated, controlling
his impulse to turn and run
down the staircase to his
apartment. The eyes of the
passengers were fixed on him,
wary of his indecision and
suspecting that it might
Page 438
conceal a ruse of some kind.
As the doors began to close
Wilder stepped forward into
the elevator, the cine-camera
raised in front of him, and
began once again his ascent of
the high-rise.
13/Body Markings
Page 439
After a delay of twenty
minutes, as irritating as a
holdup at a provincial frontier
post, the elevator moved from
the 16thto the 17thfloor.
Exhausted by the long wait,
Wilder stepped through the
doors into the lobby, looking
for somewhere to throw away
his cartons of pet food.
Crammed together shoulder
to shoulder, the returning
cost-accountants and television
executives held tightly to their
briefcases, eyes averted from
each other as they stared at
the graffiti on the walls of the
Page 440
car. The steel roof had been
removed, and the long shaft
rose above their heads,
exposed to anyone with a
missile casually to hand.
The three passengers who
stepped out with Wilder
vanished among the
barricades that lined the dimly
lit corridors. When Wilder
reached the Hillmans’
apartment he found that the
door was securely bolted.
There were no sounds of
movement from within.
Wilder tried without success to
force the lock. Conceivably the
Page 441
Hillmans had abandoned the
apartment and taken shelter
with friends. Then he heard a
faint scraping from the hall.
Pressing his head to the door,
he heard Mrs Hillman
remonstrating with herself in a
thin voice as she pulled a
heavy object across the floor.
After a prolonged tapping and
negotiation, during which
Wilder was obliged to speak to
her in her own wheedling tone,
he was admitted to the
apartment. A huge barricade
of furniture, units of kitchen
equipment, books, clothes and
Page 442
table ornaments blocked the
hallway, a miniature
municipal dump in its own
right.
Hillman lay on a mattress in
the bedroom. His head was
bandaged in a torn
evening-dress shirt, through
which the blood had seeped on
to the pillow. He raised his
head as Wilder came in, his
hand searching for a section of
balcony railing on the floor
beside him. Hillman had been
one of the first scapegoats to
be selected and attacked—his
brusque and independent
Page 443
manner made him a natural
target. During a raid on the
next floor he had been hit on
the head by a television
award-winner’s statuette as he
tried to order his way up a
defended staircase. Wilder
had carried him back to his
apartment and spent the night
looking after him.
With her husband out of
commission, Mrs Hillman
depended totally on Wilder, a
dependence that he himself in
a way enjoyed. When Wilder
was away she spent all her
time worrying about him, like
Page 444
an over-anxious mother
fretting about a wayward
child, though as soon as he
arrived she forgot who he was.
She tugged at Wilder’s sleeve
as he looked down at Hillman.
She was more concerned about
her barricade than her
husband and his ominous
disturbances of vision. Almost
everything movable in the
apartment, however small, she
had added to the barricade, at
times threatening to entomb
them for good. Each night
Wilder slept through the few
hours before dawn slumped in
Page 445
an armchair partly embedded
in the barricade. He would
hear her moving tirelessly
around him, adding a small
piece of furniture she had
found somewhere, three
books, a single gramophone
record, her jewellery box.
Once Wilder woke to find that
she had incorporated part of
his left leg. Often it would take
him half an hour to dig his
way out of the apartment.
“What is it?” Wilder asked
her irritably. “What are you
doing to my arm?” She was
peering at the bag of dog-food,
Page 446
which Wilder, in the absence
of any furniture, had been
unable to put down. For some
reason, he did not want it
added to the barricade.
“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,
Page 447
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
Page 448
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
Page 449
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
Page 450
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
Page 451
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
Page 452
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
Page 453
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
Page 454
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
Page 455
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’
Page 456
apartment on the 17thfloor.
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
Page 457
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
Page 458
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
Page 459
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
Page 460
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
Page 461
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.
Page 462
Shortly before dawn Wilder
found himself in an empty
apartment on the 26thfloor.
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
Page 463
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
Page 464
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
Page 465
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
Page 466
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
Page 467
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
Page 468
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
Page 469
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
Page 470
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
Page 471
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,
Page 472
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.
Page 473
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
Page 474
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
Page 475
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 20thfloor, a man
was cooking over a fire on his
Page 476
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.
Page 477
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.
Deciding to test the defences of
Page 478
the apartment before he went
to sleep, Wilder stepped into
the corridor. He stood outside
the doorway, as the stale air
moved past him to the open
balcony. He relished the rich
smells of the high-rise. Like
their garbage, the excrement
of the residents higher up the
building had a markedly
different odour.
Returning to the balcony, he
watched the police drive away
in their car. Of the twenty or
so residents who still left for
work each morning, three had
turned back, evidently
Page 479
unsettled by the task of
convincing the police that all
was well. Without looking up,
they scurried back to the
entrance lobby.
Wilder knew that they would
never leave again. The
separation of the high-rise
from the world around it was
now almost complete, and
would probably coincide with
his own arrival at the summit.
Soothed by this image, he sat
down on the floor and leaned
against Charlotte Melville’s
shoulder, falling asleep as she
stroked the wine-coloured
Page 480
stripes on his chest and
shoulders.
14/Final Triumph
At dusk, after he had
strengthened the guard,
Anthony Royal ordered the
candles lit on the dining-room
table. Hands in the pockets of
Page 481
his dinner-jacket, he stood at
the windows of the penthouse
apartment on the 40thfloor
and looked down across the
concrete plazas of the
development project. All the
tenants who had earlier left for
their offices had now parked
their cars and entered the
building. With their safe
arrival, Royal felt for the first
time that he could relax, like a
captain eager to set sail seeing
the last of his crew return
from shore-leave in a foreign
port. The evening had begun.
Royal sat down in the
Page 482
high-backed oak chair at the
head of the dining-table. The
candlelight flickered over the
silver cutlery and gold plate,
reflected in the silk facings of
his dinner-jacket. As usual he
smiled at the theatricality of
this contrived setting, like a
badly rehearsed and
under-financed television
commercial for a high-life
product. It had started three
weeks earlier when he and
Pangbourne had decided to
dress for dinner each evening.
Royal had ordered the women
to extend the dining-room
Page 483
table to its furthest length, so
that he could sit with his back
to the high windows and the
illuminated decks of the
nearby buildings. Responding
to Royal, the women had
brought candles and
silverware from secret caches,
and served an elaborately
prepared meal. Their shadows
swayed across the ceiling as if
they were moving around the
dining chamber of a feudal
chief. Sitting in his chair at the
far end of the long table,
Pangbourne had been suitably
impressed.
Page 484
Of course, as the gynaecologist
well knew, the charade was
meaningless. A single step
beyond the circle of
candlelight the garbage-sacks
were piled six-deep against the
walls. Outside, the corridors
and staircases were filled with
broken furniture and
barricades built from
washing-machines and freezer
cabinets. The elevator shafts
were the new garbage chutes.
Not one of the twenty elevators
in the apartment building now
functioned, and the shafts
were piled deep with kitchen
Page 485
refuse and dead dogs. A fading
semblance of civilized order
still survived in the top three
floors, the last tribal unit in
the high-rise. However, the one
error that Royal and
Pangbourne had made was to
assume that there would
always be some kind of social
organization below them
which they could exploit and
master. They were now
moving into a realm of no
social organization at all. The
clans had broken down into
small groups of killers,
solitary hunters who built
Page 486
man-traps in empty
apartments or preyed on the
unwary in deserted elevator
lobbies.
Royal looked up from the
polished table as one of the
women walked into the room,
a silver tray in her strong
arms. Watching her, he
remembered that she was Mrs
Wilder. She wore one of
Anne’s well-cut trouser-suits,
and not for the first time
Royal thought how easily this
intelligent woman had fitted
into the upper levels of the
high-rise. Two weeks earlier,
Page 487
when she was found cowering
with her sons in an empty
apartment on the 19thfloor
after Wilder abandoned her,
she was totally exhausted,
numbed by hunger and
indignation. Whether in quest
of her husband, or responding
to some dim instinct, she had
begun to climb the building.
The raiding party brought her
to the top floor. Pangbourne
had wanted to throw out this
anaemic and rambling
woman, but Royal overruled
him. Somewhere below,
Wilder was still making his
Page 488
ascent of the high-rise, and his
wife might one day be a
valuable hostage. Led away,
she joined the group of outcast
wives who lived with their
children in the next
apartment, earning their keep
by working as house servants.
Within days Mrs Wilder had
regained her strength and
self-confidence. No longer
stunned and stoop-shouldered,
she reminded Royal of the
serious and attractive wife of
an up-and-coming television
journalist who had arrived at
the high-rise a year earlier.
Page 489
He noticed that she was
clearing away Pangbourne’s
place setting, returning the
immaculate silverware to her
tray.
“They seem clean enough,”
Royal told her. “I don’t think
Dr Pangbourne will notice.”
When she ignored him and
continued to remove the
cutlery, Royal asked, “Have
you heard from him? I take it
he won’t be joining me this
evening?”
“Or any evening. He’s decided
to decline in future.” Mrs
Wilder glanced across the
Page 490
table at Royal, almost as if she
had felt a flicker of concern
for him. She added
matter-of-factly, “I should be
wary of Dr Pangbourne.”
“I always have been.”
“When a man like Dr
Pangbourne loses his appetite
for food it’s reasonable to
assume that he has something
much more interesting
between his teeth—and much
more dangerous.”
Royal listened to her cool
advice without comment. He
was not surprised that the
dinners had come to an end.
Page 491
Both he and Pangbourne,
anticipating the inevitable
break-up of the last clan
within the apartment building,
had now retired to their
quarters at opposite ends of
the roof, each taking his
women with him. Pangbourne
had moved into the penthouse
once owned by the dead
jeweller. Strangely enough,
Royal reflected, they would
soon be back where they had
begun, each tenant isolated
within his own apartment.
Something warned him to
dispense with this meal but he
Page 492
waited for Mrs Wilder to serve
him. Having survived so far,
nothing that the gynaecologist
could do would put him off his
stride. During the past months
almost all traces of his
accident had vanished, and
Royal felt stronger and more
confident than ever before. He
had won his attempt to
dominate the high-rise, and
amply proved his right to rule
this huge building, even
though at the cost of his
marriage. As for the new
social order that he had hoped
to see emerge, he knew now
Page 493
that his original vision of a
high-rise aviary had been
closer to the truth than he
guessed. Without knowing it,
he had constructed a gigantic
vertical zoo, its hundreds of
cages stacked above each
other. All the events of the
past few months made sense if
one realized that these brilliant
and exotic creatures had
learned to open the doors.
Royal sat back as Mrs Wilder
served him. Since his own
kitchen lacked any equipment,
all his meals were prepared in
the apartment next door. Mrs
Page 494
Wilder reappeared with her
tray, stepping over the
garbage-sacks that lined the
hallway—for all their descent
into barbarism, the residents
of the high-rise remained
faithful to their origins and
continued to generate a vast
amount of refuse.
As usual, the main course
consisted of a piece of roast
meat. Royal never asked about
the source of the meat—dog,
presumably. The women had
the supply situation well in
hand. Mrs Wilder stood beside
him, gazing into the night air
Page 495
as Royal tasted the heavily
spiced dish. Like a
well-trained housekeeper, she
was waiting for Royal to give
some indication of approval,
though she never seemed
concerned by either praise or
criticism. She spoke in a flat
voice unlike the animated tone
she used with Anne and the
other women. In fact, Mrs
Wilder spent more time with
his wife than Royal did
himself. Six women lived
together in the adjacent
apartment, ostensibly so that
they could be more easily
Page 496
protected from a surprise
attack. Sometimes Royal
would visit Anne, but there
was something daunting about
the closely knit group of
women, sitting on their beds
surrounded by the
garbage-sacks, together
looking after the Wilder
children. Their eyes would
watch him as he hesitated in
the door, waiting for him to go
away. Even Anne had
withdrawn from him, partly
out of fear of Royal, but also
because she realized that he no
longer needed her. At last,
Page 497
after all the months of trying
to maintain her superior
status, Anne had decided to
join her fellow residents.
“Good—it’s excellent again.
Wait . . . before you go.” Royal
put down his fork. Casually,
he asked, “Have you heard
anything of him? Perhaps
someone has seen him?”
Mrs Wilder shook her head,
bored by this roundabout
questioning. “Who . . . ?”
“Your husband—Richard, I
think he was called. Wilder .”
Mrs Wilder stared down at
Royal, shaking her head as if
Page 498
not recognizing him. Royal
was certain that she had not
only forgotten the identity of
her husband, but of all men,
including himself. To test this,
he placed his hand on her
thigh, feeling the strong
muscle. Mrs Wilder stood
passively with her tray,
unaware of Royal fondling
her, partly because she had
been molested by so many
men during the past months,
but also because the sexual
assault itself had ceased to
have any meaning. When
Royal slipped two of his
Page 499
fingers into her natal cleft she
reacted, not by pushing his
hand away, but by moving it
to her waist and lightly
holding it there as she would
the straying hands of her
children.
When she had gone, taking the
portion of meat which Royal
always left for her, he sat back
at the long table. He was glad
to see her go. Without asking
him, Mrs Wilder had
laundered his white jacket,
washing out the bloodstains
which Royal at one time had
worn so proudly and which
Page 500
had given him, not merely his
sense of authority, but his
whole unstated role within the
high-rise.
Had she done this deliberately,
knowing that it would
emasculate him? Royal could
still remember the period of
endless parties, when the
apartment building had been
lit up like a drunken liner.
Royal had played the role of
feudal chief to the hilt,
presiding each evening over
the council meetings held in
his drawing-room. As they sat
together in the candlelight,
Page 501
these neurosurgeons, senior
academics and stockbrokers
displayed all the talents for
intrigue and survival exercised
by years of service in industry,
commerce and university life.
For all the formal vocabulary
of agendas and minutes,
proposed and seconded
motions, the verbal
paraphernalia bequeathed by
a hundred committee
meetings, these were in effect
tribal conferences. Here they
discussed the latest ruses for
obtaining food and women, for
defending the upper floors
Page 502
against marauders, their plans
for alliance and betrayal. Now
the new order had emerged, in
which all life within the
high-rise revolved around
three obsessions—security,
food and sex.
Leaving the table, Royal
picked up a silver candlestick
and carried it to the window.
All the lights in the high-rise
were out. Two floors, the
40thand the 37th, were left
with electric current, but they
remained unlit. The darkness
was more comforting, a place
where real illusions might
Page 503
flourish.
Forty floors below, a car
turned into the parking-lot
and threaded its way through
the maze of access lanes to its
place two hundred yards from
the building. The driver,
wearing a flying-jacket and
heavy boots, stepped out and
hurried head-down towards
the entrance. Royal guessed
that this unknown man was
probably the last resident to
leave the building and set off
for his office. Whoever he was,
he had found a route to and
from his apartment.
Page 504
Somewhere on the roof, a dog
whimpered. Far below, from
the mouth of an apartment
twenty storeys down the cliff
face, there was a brief isolated
scream—whether of pain, lust
or rage no longer mattered.
Royal waited, his heart
starting to race. A moment
later there was a second
scream, a meaningless wail.
These cries were the
expressions of totally
abstracted emotions, detached
from the context of events
around them.
Page 505
Royal waited, expecting one of
his retinue to enter and inform
him of the probable reasons
for these disturbances. Apart
from the women in the next
apartment, several of the
younger male residents—a
gallery owner from the
39thfloor, and a successful
hairdresser from the
38th—usually lounged about
in the corridor among the
garbage-sacks, leaning on
their spears and keeping an
eye on the staircase
barricades.
Picking up his chromium cane,
Page 506
Royal left the dining-room, a
single candle in its silver stick
lighting his way. As he
stumbled over the black
plastic bags he wondered why
they had never heaved them
over the side. Presumably they
held this rubbish to themselves
less from fear of attracting the
attention of the outside world
than from a need to cling to
their own, surround
themselves with the mucilage
of unfinished meals, bloody
bandage scraps, broken
bottles that once held the wine
that made them drunk, all
Page 507
faintly visible through the
semi-opaque plastic.
His apartment was empty, the
high-ceilinged rooms deserted.
Cautiously, Royal stepped into
the corridor. The guard-post
by the barricades was
unmanned, and no lights
gleamed through the doorway
of the adjacent apartment
where the women lived.
Surprised by the absence of
light from the usually busy
kitchen, Royal walked through
the darkened hallway. He
kicked aside a child’s toy and
raised the candlestick above
Page 508
his head, trying to pick out
any sleeping human figures in
the surrounding rooms.
Open suitcases lay on the
mattresses that covered the
floor of the master-bedroom.
Royal stood in the doorway, a
medley of scents crowding
around him in the darkness,
brilliant wakes left behind
them by these fleeing women.
Hesitating for a moment, he
reached into the room and
switched on the light.
The instant electric glow, so
unfamiliar after the wavering
candlelight and twitching
Page 509
torch-beams, shone down on
the six mattresses in the room.
Half-packed suitcases lay on
top of each other, as if the
women had left at a moment’s
notice, or at some prearranged
signal. Most of their clothes
had been left behind, and he
recognized the trouser-suit
which Mrs Wilder had worn to
serve his dinner. The racks of
Anne’s dresses and suits hung
in the wardrobes like a store
display.
The even light, as dead as a
time exposure in a police
photograph recording a crime,
Page 510
lay across these torn
mattresses and discarded
clothes, the wine-stains on the
walls and the forgotten
cosmetics on the floor at his
feet.
As Royal stared down at them,
he could hear a faint hooting
noise from the darkened
corridor, moving away from
him as if emitted by these
escaping women. This series of
whoops and nasal grunts he
had been listening to for days,
trying without success to
repress them from his mind.
Switching off the light, he
Page 511
seized his cane firmly in both
hands and left the apartment.
Standing outside the door, he
listened to the distant sounds,
almost an electronic parody of
a child’s crying. They moved
through the apartments at the
far end of the floor, metallic
and remote, the sounds of the
beasts of his private zoo.
Page 512
15/The Evening’s
Entertainment
The evening deepened, and the
apartment building withdrew
into the darkness. As usual at
this hour, the high-rise was
silent, as if everyone in the
huge building was passing
through a border zone. On the
roof the dogs whimpered to
themselves. Royal blew out the
candles in the dining-room
and made his way up the steps
to the penthouse. Reflecting
the distant lights of the
Page 513
neighbouring high-rises, the
chromium shafts of the
callisthenics machine seemed
to move up and down like
columns of mercury, a
complex device recording the
shifting psychological levels of
the residents below. As Royal
stepped on to the roof the
darkness was lit by the white
forms of hundreds of birds.
Their wings flared in the dark
air as they struggled to find a
perch on the crowded elevator
heads and balustrades.
Royal waited until they
surrounded him, steering their
Page 514
beaks away from his legs with
his stick. He felt himself
becoming calm again. If the
women and the other
members of his dwindling
entourage had decided to leave
him, so much the better. Here
in the darkness among the
birds, listening to them swoop
and cry, the dogs whimpering
in the children’s
sculpture-garden, he felt most
at home. He was convinced
more than ever that the birds
were attracted here by his own
presence.
Royal scattered the birds out
Page 515
of his way and pushed back
the gates of the
sculpture-garden. As they
recognized him, the dogs
began to whine and strain,
pulling against their leads.
These retrievers, poodles and
dachshunds were all that
remained of the hundred or so
animals who had once lived in
the upper floors of the
high-rise. They were kept here
as a strategic food reserve, but
Royal had seen to it that few of
them had been eaten. The dogs
formed his personal hunting
pack, to be kept until the final
Page 516
confrontation when he would
lead them down into the
building, and throw open the
windows of the barricaded
apartments to admit the birds.
The dogs pulled at his legs,
their leads entangled around
the play-sculptures. Even
Royal’s favourite, the white
alsatian, was restless and on
edge. Royal tried to settle it,
running his hands over the
luminous but still bloodstained
coat. The dog butted him
nervously, knocking him back
across the empty food-pails.
As Royal regained his balance,
Page 517
he heard the sound of voices
surging up the central
stairway a hundred feet
behind him. Lights
approached through the
darkness, a procession of
electric torches held at
shoulder height. The beams of
light cut through the night air,
scattering the birds into the
sky. A portable casette player
boomed out its music over the
clicking of dumb-bells. As
Royal paused behind an
elevator head, a group of his
top-floor neighbours erupted
on to the roof. Led by
Page 518
Pangbourne, they spread in a
loose circle across the
observation deck, ready to
celebrate a recent triumph.
Without Royal’s approval or
foreknowledge, a raid had
taken place on the floors
below.
The gynaecologist was in high
excitement, waving the last
stragglers up the staircase like
a demented courier. From his
mouth came a series of
peculiar whoops and cries,
barely articulated grunts that
sounded like some
Neanderthal mating call but,
Page 519
in fact, were Pangbourne’s
rendering of the recorded
birth-cries analysed by his
computer. These eerie and
unsettling noises Royal had
been forced to listen to for
weeks as members of his
entourage took up the refrain.
A few days earlier he had
finally banned the making of
these noises altogether—sitting
in the penthouse and trying to
think about the birds, it
unnerved him to hear the
women in the kitchen next
door emitting these clicks and
grunts. However, Pangbourne
Page 520
held regular sessions in his
own quarters at the opposite
end of the roof, where he
would play through his library
of recorded birth-cries for the
benefit of the women
crouching in a hushed circle on
the floor around him.
Together they mimicked these
weird noises, an oral emblem
of Pang-bourne’s growing
authority.
Now they had left Royal, and
were giving full vent to
everything they had learned,
hooting and growling like a
troupe of demented
Page 521
mothers-to-be invoking their
infants’ birth-traumas.
Waiting for the right moment
to make his entrance, Royal
heeled the alsatian behind a
tattered awning that leaned
against the elevator head. For
once he was glad that he was
wearing his tuxedo—the white
safari-jacket would have stood
out like a flame.
Two “guests’ had been picked
up, a cost-accountant from the
32ndfloor with a bandaged
head, and a myopic
meteorologist from the 27th.
The woman carrying the
Page 522
cassette player, he noted
calmly, was his wife Anne.
Sloppily dressed, her hair in a
mess, she lolled against
Pang-bourne’s shoulder and
then wandered about in the
circle of torch-light like a
moody trollop, brandishing
the cassette player at the two
prisoners.
“Ladies . . . please, now.
There’s more to come.”
Pang-bourne calmed the
women, his slim fingers like
brittle sticks in the confused
light. The portable bar was
lifted upright. A table and two
Page 523
chairs were set beside it, and
the guests uneasily took their
seats. The cost-accountant was
trying to straighten the
unravelling bandage around
his head, as if frightened that
he might be called upon to
play blind man’s buff. The
meteorologist squinted
shortsightedly into the
torchlight, hoping to recognize
someone among those
takingpart in this revel. Royal
knew everyone present, his
neighbours of the past year,
and could almost believe that
he was attending one of the
Page 524
many cocktail parties held on
the roof that summer. At the
same time he felt that he was
watching the opening act of a
stylized opera or ballet, in
which a restaurant is reduced
to a single table and the
doomed hero is taunted by a
chorus of waiters, before being
despatched to his death.
The hosts at this party had
been drinking long before
their two guests arrived. The
jeweller’s widow in the long
fur coat, Anne with her
cassette player, Jane Sheridan
waving a cocktail shaker, all
Page 525
were lurching about as if to
some deranged music only
Royal was unable to hear.
Pangbourne called for quiet
again. “Now—keep our guests
amused. They’re looking
bored. What are we playing
tonight?”
A medley of suggestions was
shouted out.
“Gang Plank!”
“Flying School, doctor!”
“Moon Walk!”
Pangbourne turned to his
guests. “I rather like Flying
School . . . Did you know we’ve
been running a flying school
Page 526
here? No -- ?”
“We’ve decided to offer you
some free lessons,” Anne
Royal told them.
“One free lesson,” Pangbourne
corrected. Everyone sniggered
at this. “But that’s all you’ll
need. Isn’t it, Anne?”
“It’s a remarkably effective
course.”
“Solo first time, in fact.”
Already, led by the jeweller’s
widow, they were dragging the
injured accountant towards
the balustrade, everyone
tripping over the bloodstained
bandage unwrapping around
Page 527
his head. A pair of tattered
papier-mâché wings, part of a
child’s angel costume, were
fastened to the victim’s back.
The grunting and hooting
began again.
Dragging the reluctant
alsatian after him, Royal
stepped into view. Involved in
their imminent execution, no
one noticed him. As casually
as he could muster, he called
out, “Pangbourne . . . ! Dr
Pangbourne . . . !”
The noise slackened.
Torch-beams flicked through
the darkness, whipping across
Page 528
Royal’s silk-lapelled
dinner-jacket, fixing on the
white alsatian trying to escape
between his feet.
“Flying School! Flying
School!” The sullen chant was
taken up. Looking down at
this unruly gang, Royal could
almost believe that he was
surrounded by a crowd of
semi-literate children. The zoo
had rebelled against its
keeper.
Hearing Royal’s voice, the
gynaecologist turned from his
prisoner, whose bandage he
had expertly refastened.
Page 529
Wiping his hands, he strolled
across the roof, almost
mimicking Royal’s casual
saunter. But his eyes were
examining Royal’s face with a
wholly professional curiosity,
as if he had already decided
that its expression of firm
determination could be
readjusted by cutting a
minimum number of nerves
and muscles.
The chant rose into the air.
The torch-beams beat
rhythmically across the
darkness, striking Royal’s
face. He waited patiently for
Page 530
the clamour to subside. As
Anne broke away from the
crowd and ran forward he
raised the chromium cane,
ready to strike her. She
stopped in front of him,
smirking as she fluffed up her
long skirt in a provocative
gesture. Suddenly she turned
the cassette player to full
volume and thrust it into his
face. A gabble of birth-cries
filled the air.
“Royal . . .” the jeweller’s
widow shouted warningly.
“Here’s Wilder!”
Startled by the name, Royal
Page 531
flinched back, thrashing at the
darkness with the chromium
cane. The torch-beams
swerved around him, the
shadows of the overturned
chairs swinging across the
concrete roof. Expecting
Wilder to lunge at him from
behind, he stumbled across the
awning and entangled himself
in the dog’s lead.
He heard laughter behind him.
Controlling himself with an
effort, he turned to face
Pangbourne again. But the
gynaecologist was walking
away, looking back at him
Page 532
without hostility. He waved to
Royal with a quick movement
of his hand, as if flicking a
dart at him, dismissing him
for ever. The torches swung
away from Royal, and
everyone returned to the more
serious business of tormenting
the two guests.
Royal watched from the
darkness as they argued over
the prisoners. The
confrontation with
Pangbourne was over—or,
more exactly, had never taken
place. A simple ruse had
Page 533
unnnerved him, leaving him
with the uncertainty of
whether or not he really feared
Wilder. He had been
humiliated, but in a sense this
was only just. The
gynaecologist was the man for
their hour. No zoo would
survive for long with
Pangbourne as its keeper, but
he would provide a node of
violence and cruelty that
would keep alive in others the
will to survive.
Let the psychotics take over.
They alone understood what
was happening. Holding to the
Page 534
alsatian, Royal let the dog
drag him away towards the
safety of the darkness near the
sculpture-garden. The white
forms of the birds were
massed together on every
ledge and parapet. Royal
listened to the whimpering
dogs. He had no means now of
feeding them. The glass doors
of the penthouse reflected the
swerving birds, like the
casements of a secret pavilion.
He would close down his
apartment, block the staircase
and retreat to the penthouse,
perhaps taking Mrs Wilder
Page 535
with him as his servant. Here
he would preside over the
high-rise, taking up his last
tenancy in the sky.
He unlocked the gate of the
sculpture-garden and moved
through the darkness among
the statues, releasing the dogs.
One by one they scrambled
away, until only Royal and the
birds were left.
Page 536
16/A Happy Arrangement
An uncertain scene, Robert
Laing decided. He could no
longer trust his senses. A
curious light, grey and humid
but at the same time marbled
by a faint interior luminosity,
hung over the apartment. As
he stood among the
garbage-sacks in the kitchen,
trying to coax a few drops of
water from the tap, he peered
over his shoulder at the dull
fog that stretched like a
Page 537
curtain across the
sitting-room, almost an
extension of his own mind. Not
for the first time he was
unsure what time of day it
was. How long had he been up
? Laing vaguely remembered
sleeping on the tartan rug that
lay on the kitchen floor, his
head pillowed on a
garbage-sack between the
table legs. He had been
wandering about the bedroom
where his sister Alice lay
asleep, but whether he had
woken five minutes ago or the
previous day Laing had no
Page 538
means of telling.
He shook his watch, picking at
the fractured dial with a grimy
finger-nail. The watch had
stopped during a scuffle in the
25thfloor lobby several days
earlier. Although he had
forgotten the exact moment,
the hands of this broken watch
contained the one point of
finite time left to him, like a
fossil cast on to a beach,
crystallizing -for ever a brief
sequence of events within a
vanished ocean. However, it
barely mattered now what
time it was—anything rather
Page 539
than night, when it was too
terrifying to do more than
shelter in the apartment,
crouching behind his
dilapidated barricade.
Laing turned the cold water
tap on and off, listening to the
faintly changing tone. At rare
intervals, perhaps for a single
minute during the day, a
green, algae-stained liquid
flowed from the tap. These
small columns of water,
moving up and down the huge
system of pipes that ran
throughout the building,
announced their arrivals and
Page 540
departures with faint changes
of note. Listening to this
remote and complex music
had sharpened Laing’s ears, a
sensitivity that extended to
almost any kind of sound
within the building. By
contrast his sight, dulled by
being used chiefly at night,
presented him with an
increasingly opaque world.
Little movement took place
within the high-rise. As Laing
often reminded himself,
almost everything that could
happen had already taken
place. He left the kitchen and
Page 541
squeezed himself into the
narrow niche between the
front door and the barricade.
He placed his right ear to the
sounding panel of the wooden
door. From the minute
reverberations he could tell
instantly if a marauder was
moving through the
abandoned apartments
nearby. During the brief
period each afternoon when he
and Steele emerged from their
apartments—a token
remembrance of that time
when people had actually left
the building—they would take
Page 542
turns standing with their
hands pressed against the
metal walls of an elevator
shaft, feeling the vibrations
transmitted to their bodies,
picking up a sudden
movement fifteen floors above
or below. Crouched on the
staircase with their fingers on
the metal rails, they listened to
the secret murmurs of the
building, the distant spasms of
violence that communicated
themselves like bursts of
radiation from another
universe. The high-rise
quivered with these tremors,
Page 543
sinister trickles of sound as a
wounded tenant crawled up a
stairway, a trap closed around
a wild dog, an unwary prey
went down before a club.
Today, however, befitting this
timeless zone with its
uncertain light, there was no
sound at all. Laing returned to
the kitchen and listened to the
water-pipes, part of a huge
acoustic system operated by
thousands of stops, this dying
musical instrument they had
once all played together. But
everything was quiet. The
residents of the high-rise
Page 544
remained where they were,
hiding behind the barricades
in their apartments,
conserving what was left of
their sanity and preparing
themselves for the night. By
now what violence there was
had become totally stylized,
spasms of cold and random
aggression. In a sense life in
the high-rise had begun to
resemble the world
outside—there were the same
ruthlessness and aggression
concealed within a set of polite
conventions.
Still uncertain how long he had
Page 545
been awake, or what he had
been doing half an hour
earlier, Laing sat down among
the empty bottles and refuse
on the kitchen floor. He gazed
up at the derelict
washing-machine and
refrigerator, now only used as
garbage-bins. He found it hard
to remember what their
original function had been. To
some extent they had taken on
a new significance, a role that
he had yet to understand.
Even the run-down nature of
the high-rise was a model of
the world into which the future
Page 546
was carrying them, a
landscape beyond technology
where everything was either
derelict or, more ambiguously,
recombined in unexpected but
more meaningful ways. Laing
pondered this—sometimes he
found it difficult not to believe
that they were living in a
future that had already taken
place, and was now exhausted.
Squatting beside his dried-up
water-hole like a desert nomad
with all the time in the world,
Laing waited patiently for the
taps to flow. He picked at the
Page 547
dirt on the backs of his hands.
Despite his tramp-like
appearance he dismissed the
notion of using the water to
wash. The high-rise stank.
None of the lavatories or
garbage-disposal chutes were
working, and a faint spray of
urine hung over the face of the
building, drifting across the
tiers of balconies. Overlaying
this characteristic odour,
however, was a far more
ambiguous smell, putrid and
sweet, that tended to hover
around empty apartments,
and which Laing chose not to
Page 548
investigate too closely.
For all its inconveniences,
Laing was satisfied with life in
the high-rise. Now that so
many of the residents were out
of the way he felt able to relax,
more in charge of himself and
ready to move forward and
explore his life. How and
where exactly, he had not yet
decided.
His real concern was with his
sister. Alice had fallen ill with
a non-specific malaise, and
spent her time lying on the
mattress in Laing’s bedroom
or wandering half-naked
Page 549
around the apartment, her
body shuddering like an
oversensitive seismograph at
imperceptible tremors that
shook the building. When
Laing drummed on the
waste-pipe below the sink,
sending a hollow drone
through the empty pipe, Alice
called out from the bedroom
in her thin voice.
Laing went in to see her,
picking his way among the
piles of kindling he had made
from chopped-up furniture.
He enjoyed cutting up the
chairs and tables.
Page 550
Alice pointed to him with a
stick-like hand. “The
noise—you’re signalling again
to someone. Who is it now?”
“No one, Alice. Who do you
think we know?”
“Those people on the lower
floors. The ones you like.”
Laing stood beside her,
uncertain whether to sit on the
mattress. His sister’s face was
as greasy as a wax lemon.
Trying to focus on him, her
tired eyes drifted about in her
head like lost fish. It crossed
his mind briefly that she might
be dying—during the past two
Page 551
days they had eaten no more
than a few fillets of canned
smoked salmon, which he had
found under the floorboards in
an empty apartment.
Ironically, the standard of
cuisine in the apartment
building had begun to rise
during these days of its
greatest decline, as more and
more delicacies came to light.
However, food was a
secondary matter, and Alice
was very much alive in other
ways. Laing enjoyed her
wheedling criticisms of him, as
he tried to satisfy her pointless
Page 552
whims. All this was a game,
but he relished the role of
over-dutiful servant dedicated
to a waspish mistress, a
devoted menial whose chief
satisfaction was a total lack of
appreciation and the endless
recitation of his faults. In
many ways, in fact, his
relationship with Alice
recapitulated that which his
wife had unthinkingly tried to
create, hitting by accident on
the one possible source of
harmony between them, and
which Laing had rejected at
the time. Within the high-rise,
Page 553
he reflected, his marriage
would have succeeded
triumphantly.
“I’m trying to find some
water, Alice. You’d like a little
tea?”
“The kettle smells.”
“I’ll wash it for you. You
mustn’t become dehydrated.”
She nodded grudgingly.
“What’s been happening?”
“Nothing . . . It’s already
happened.” A ripe but not
unpleasant smell rose from
Alice’s body. “Everything is
starting to get back to
normal.”
Page 554
“What about Alan—you said
you’d look for him.”
“I’m afraid he’s gone.” Laing
disliked these references to
Alice’s husband. They
introduced a discordant note.
“I found your apartment but
it’s empty now.”
Alice turned her head away,
indicating that she had seen
enough of her brother. Laing
bent down and gathered
together the kindling she had
scattered on the floor beside
the mattress. These
dining-room chair-legs, well
impregnated with glue and
Page 555
varnish, would burn briskly.
Laing had looted the chairs
from Adrian Talbot’s
apartment after the
psychiatrist’s disappearance.
He was grateful for this
reproduction
Hepplewhite—the
conventional tastes of the
middle-floor residents had
served them well. By contrast,
those on the lower levels found
themselves with a clutter of
once-fashionable chromium
tubing and undressed leather,
useless for anything but sitting
on.
Page 556
All cooking was now done over
fires which the residents lit for
themselves on their balconies,
or in the artificial fireplaces.
Laing carried the sticks on to
the balcony. As he squatted
there he realized that he had
nothing to cook. The secret
cache of cans he had long ago
been obliged to surrender to
the orthodontic surgeon next
door. In fact, Laing’s position
was secure thanks only to the
morphine ampoules he had
concealed.
Although Steele frightened
him with his unpredictable
Page 557
cruelties, Laing had attached
himself to him out of necessity.
So many people had gone, or
dropped out of the struggle
altogether. Had they deserted
the high-rise for the world
outside? Laing was sure that
they had not. In a sense he
depended on the uncertainties
of his relationship with the
dentist, following his
murderous swings like a
condemned prisoner in love
with a moody jailer. During
the previous weeks Steele’s
behaviour had become
frightening. The deliberately
Page 558
mindless assaults on anyone
found alone or unprotected,
the infantile smearing of blood
on the walls of empty
apartments—all these Laing
watched uneasily. Since his
wife’s disappearance Steele
had been as tautly strung as
the huge crossbows which he
constructed from piano wire
and mounted in the lobbies
and corridors, their vicious
arrows fashioned from the
shafts of golf-clubs. At the
same time, however, Steele
remained strangely calm, as if
pursuing some unknown
Page 559
quest.
Steele slept in the afternoon,
giving Laing a chance to
prospect for water. As he
picked up the kettle he heard
Alice call out to him, but when
he returned to her she had
already forgotten what she
wanted.
She held out her hands to him.
Usually Laing would have
rubbed them for her, trying to
kindle a little warmth in them,
but out of some kind of
peculiar loyalty to the dentist
he made no effort to help
Alice. This petty show of
Page 560
callousness, his declining
personal hygiene, and even his
deliberate neglect of his health,
were elements in a system he
made no attempt to change.
For weeks all he had been able
to think about were the next
raid, the next apartment to be
ransacked, the next tenant to
be beaten up. He enjoyed
watching Steele at work,
obsessed with these
expressions of mindless
violence. Each one brought
them a step closer to the
ultimate goal of the high-rise,
a realm where their most
Page 561
deviant impulses were free at
last to exercise themselves in
any way they wished. At this
point physical violence would
cease at last.
Laing waited for Alice to
subside into
half-consciousness. Looking
after his sister was taking up
more of his energy than he
could afford. If she was dying
there was little he could do,
apart from giving her a
terminal gram of morphine
and hiding her body before
Steele could mutilate it.
Dressing up corpses and
Page 562
setting them in grotesque
tableaux was a favourite
pastime of the dentist’s. His
imagination, repressed by all
the years of reconstructing his
patients’ mouths, came alive
particularly when he was
playing with the dead. The
previous day Laing had
blundered into an apartment
and found him painting a
bizarre cosmetic mask on the
face of a dead
account-executive, dressing the
body like an overblown
drag-queen in a voluminous
silk nightdress. Given time,
Page 563
and a continuing supply of
subjects, the dentist would
repopu-late the entire
high-rise.
Carrying the kettle, Laing let
himself out of the apartment.
The same dim light, pearled
by a faint interior glow, filled
the corridor and elevator
lobby, a miasma secreted by
the high-rise itself, distillation
of all its dead concrete. The
walls were spattered with
blood, overlaying the
aerosolled graffiti like the
tachist explosions in the
paintings that filled the
Page 564
top-floor apartments. Broken
furniture and unravelled
recording tape lay among the
garbage-sacks piled against
the walls.
Laing’s feet crackled among
the polaroid negatives
scattered about the corridor
floor, each recording a
long-forgotten act of violence.
As he paused, wary of
attracting the attention of a
watching predator, the
staircase doors opened and a
man in a flying-jacket and
fleece-lined boots entered the
lobby.
Page 565
Watching Paul Crosland
stride purposefully across the
debris-strewn carpet, Laing
realized that the television
announcer had just returned,
as he did every day, from
reading the lunch-time news
bulletin at the television
station. Crosland was the only
person to leave the high-rise,
maintaining a last tenuous link
with the outside world. Even
Steele side-stepped him
discreetly. A few people still
watched him read the news on
their battery-powered sets,
crouching among the
Page 566
garbage-sacks behind their
barricades, perhaps still
hoping that even now
Crosland might suddenly
depart from his set text and
blurt out to the world at large
what was happening within the
high-rise.
Inside the staircase Laing had
set up a dog trap, using a
tropical mosquito-net he had
lifted from an anthropologist’s
apartment three floors above.
A plague of dogs had
descended the building from
their breeding grounds on the
upper floors. Laing had no
Page 567
hopes of catching the larger
dogs in the spring-loaded
contraption, but a dachshund
or pekinese might become
entangled in the nylon mesh.
The staircase was unguarded.
Taking a chance, Laing made
his way down the steps to the
floor below. The lobby was
blocked by a barricade of
furniture, and he turned into
the corridor that served the
ten apartments in the northern
wing of the building.
Three doors along, he entered
an abandoned apartment. The
rooms were empty, the
Page 568
furniture and fittings long
since stripped away. In the
kitchen Laing tried the taps.
With his sheath-knife he cut
the hoses of the
washing-machine and
dishwasher, collecting a cupful
of metallic water. In the
bathroom the naked body of
an elderly tax-specialist lay on
the tiled floor. Without
thinking, Laing stepped over
him. He wandered around the
apartment, picking up an
empty whisky decanter on the
floor. A faint odour of malt
whisky clung to it, an almost
Page 569
intoxicating nostalgia.
Laing moved to the next
apartment, also abandoned
and gutted. In a bedroom he
noticed that the carpet covered
a small circular depression.
Suspecting a secret food cache,
he rolled back the carpet, and
found that a manhole had
been drilled through the
wooden floorboards and
concrete deck to the
apartment below.
After sealing the door, Laing
lay down on the floor and
peered into the room beneath.
A circular glass table, by a
Page 570
miracle still intact, reflected
his blood-spattered shirt and
bearded face, staring up from
what seemed to be the bottom
of a deep well. Beside the table
were two overturned
armchairs. The balcony doors
were closed, and curtains hung
on either side of the windows.
Looking down at this placid
scene, Laing felt that he had
accidentally been given a
glimpse into a parallel world,
where the laws of the high-rise
were suspended, a magical
domain where these huge
buildings were furnished and
Page 571
decorated but never occupied.
On an impulse, Laing eased
his thin legs through the
manhole. He sat on the ledge
and swung himself down into
the room below. Standing on
the glass table, he surveyed the
apartment. Hard experience
told him that he was not
alone—somewhere a
miniature bell was ringing. A
faint scratching came from the
bedroom, as if a small animal
was trying to escape from a
paper sack.
Laing pushed back the
bedroom door. A red-haired
Page 572
woman in her mid-thirties lay
fully dressed on the bed,
playing with a persian cat. The
creature wore a velvet collar
and bell, and its lead was
attached to the woman’s
bloodied wrist. The cat
vigorously licked at the
bloodstains on its coat, and
then seized the woman’s wrist
and gnawed at the thin flesh,
trying to reopen a wound.
The woman, whom Laing
vaguely recognized as Eleanor
Powell, made no effort to stop
the cat from dining off her
flesh. Her serious face, with its
Page 573
blue cyanosed hue, was
inclined over the cat like that
of a tolerant parent watching a
child at play.
Her left hand lay across the
silk bedspread, touching a
pencil and reporter’s
note-pad. Facing her, at the
foot of the bed, were four
television sets. They were
tuned to different stations, but
three of the screens were
blank. On the fourth, a
battery-powered set, the
out-of-focus picture of a
horse-race was being
projected soundlessly.
Page 574
Uninterested in her reviewing,
Eleanor teased her bloodied
wrist into the cat’s mouth. The
creature was ravenous, tearing
excitedly at the flesh around
the knuckle. Laing tried to
pull the cat away, but Eleanor
jerked at the lead, urging it
back on to her wound.
“I’m keeping her alive,” she
told Laing reprovingly. The
cat’s attentions brought a
serene smile to her face. She
raised her left hand. “Doctor,
you may suckle my other wrist
. . . Poor man, you look thin
enough.”
Page 575
Laing listened to the sounds of
the cat’s teeth. The apartment
was silent, and the noise of his
own excited breathing was
magnified to an uncanny
extent. Would he soon be the
last person alive in the
high-rise? He thought of
himself in this enormous
building, free to roam its
floors and concrete galleries,
to climb its silent elevator
shafts, to sit by himself in turn
on every one of its thousand
balconies. This dream, longed
for since his arrival at the
high-rise, suddenly unnerved
Page 576
him, almost as if, at last alone
here, he had heard footsteps in
the next room and come face
to face with himself.
He turned up the volume of
the television set. A racetrack
commentator’s voice emerged
from the speaker, a gabble of
names that sounded like a
demented inventory, a list of
unrelated objects being
recruited to repopulate the
high-rise in an emergency
transfusion of identity.
“What -- ? Where’s the
programme?” Eleanor raised
her head, peering disjointedly
Page 577
at the television set. Her left
hand scrabbled around for the
dictation pad and pencil.
“What’s he saying?”
Laing slipped his arms under
her. He intended to carry her,
but her thin body was
surprisingly heavy. He was
weaker than he had thought.
“Can you walk? I’ll come
back later for the set.”
She shrugged vaguely, swaying
against Laing like a drunk in a
bar accepting a dubious
proposition from an old
acquaintance. Sitting beside
him on the edge of the bed, she
Page 578
leaned an arm on his shoulder,
inspecting him with a shrewd
eye. She tapped Laing
aggressively on the arm. “All
right. First thing, though, find
some batteries.”
“Of course.” Her show of
wilfulness was pleasantly
encouraging. As she watched
from the bed he pulled a
suitcase from the wardrobe
and began to fill it with her
clothes.
So Laing took Eleanor Powell
and her portable television set
back to his apartment. He
Page 579
arranged her on a mattress in
the living-room, and spent his
days hunting the abandoned
apartments for food, water
and batteries. The
reappearance of television in
his life convinced Laing that
everything in the high-rise was
becoming normal again. When
Steele moved on to the richer
pastures above, Laing declined
his offer to join him. Already
Laing had decided to separate
himself and his two women
from everyone else. He needed
to be alone with Alice and
Eleanor, to be as aggressive
Page 580
and self-reliant, as passive and
submissive as he wished. He
had little idea at this early
stage of what role he would
play with these two women,
but whatever he chose he
would have to play out within
his own walls.
Laing knew that he was far
happier now than ever before,
despite all the hazards of his
life, the likelihood that he
would die at any time from
hunger or assault. He was
satisfied by his self-reliance,
his ability to cope with the
tasks of survival—foraging,
Page 581
keeping his wits about him,
guarding his two women from
any marauder who might want
to use them for similar
purposes. Above all, he was
pleased with his good sense in
giving rein to those impulses
that involved him with
Eleanor and his sister,
perversities created by the
limitless possibilities of the
high-rise.
Page 582
17/The Lakeside Pavilion
As if nervous of disturbing the
interior of the apartment
building, the morning sun
explored the half-shuttered
skylight of the 40th-floor
stairwell, slipped between the
broken panes and fell
obliquely down the steps.
Shivering in the cold air five
floors below, Richard Wilder
watched the sunlight approach
him. He sat on the steps,
Page 583
leaning against a dining-room
table which formed part of a
massive barricade blocking
the staircase. After crouching
here all night, Wilder was
frozen. The higher up the
building he moved, the colder
it became, and at times he had
been tempted to retreat to the
floors below. He looked down
at the animal crouching beside
him—a black poodle, he
guessed it had once
been—envying its shaggy coat.
His own body was almost
naked, and he rubbed at the
lipstick smeared across his
Page 584
chest and shoulders, trying to
insulate himself with this sweet
grease.
The dog’s eyes were fixed on
the landing above. Its ears
pricked as it detected the
sounds, inaudible to Wilder, of
someone moving behind the
barricade. During their ten
days together the two had
formed a successful hunting
team, and Wilder was
reluctant to urge the dog to
attack before it was ready.
The threadbare remains of
Wilder’s trousers, cut away at
the knees, were stained with
Page 585
blood and wine. A ragged
beard covered his heavy face,
partly concealing an open
wound on his jaw. He looked
derelict and exhausted, but in
fact his body was as strongly
muscled as ever. His broad
chest was covered with a
hatchwork of painted lines, a
vivid display that spread
across his shoulders and back.
At intervals he inspected the
design, which he had painted
the previous afternoon with a
lipstick he had found in an
abandoned apartment. What
had begun as a drink-fuddled
Page 586
game had soon taken on a
serious ritual character. The
markings, apart from
frightening the few other
people he might come across,
gave him a potent sense of
identity. As well, they
celebrated his long and now
virtually successful ascent of
the high-rise. Determined to
look his best when he finally
stepped on to the roof, Wilder
licked his scarred fingers,
massaging himself with one
hand and freshening up his
design with the other.
He held the dog’s leash in a
Page 587
strong grip and watched the
landing ten steps above him.
The sun, continuing its
laboured descent of the
stairwell, at last reached him
and began to warm his skin.
Wilder looked up at the
skylight sixty feet above his
head. The rectangle of white
sky became more and more
unreal as it drew closer, like
the artificial ceiling of a film
set.
The dog quivered, edging its
paws forwards. Only a few
yards from them, someone
was straightening part of the
Page 588
barricade. Wilder waited
patiently, moving the dog up
one step. For all the
savage-like ferocity of his
appearance, Wilder’s
behaviour was a model of
restraint. Having come this
far, he had no intention of
being caught unawares. He
peered through a crack in the
dining-table. Behind the
barricade someone pulled
back a small mahogany
writing-desk that served as a
concealed door. Through this
gap appeared an almost bald
woman of about seventy. Her
Page 589
tough face peered into the
stairwell. After a wary pause,
she stepped through the gap to
the landing rail, a champagne
bucket in one hand. She was
dressed in the remnants of an
expensive evening gown, which
exposed the mottled white skin
of her muscular arms and
shoulders.
Wilder watched her with
respect. He had tangled with
these crones more than once,
and was well aware that they
were capable of a surprising
turn of speed. Without
moving, he waited as she
Page 590
leaned over the landing rail
and emptied the slops from
the champagne bucket. The
cold grease spattered Wilder
and the dog, but neither made
any response. Wilder carefully
wiped the cinecamera lying on
the step beside him. Its lenses
had been fractured during the
skirmishes and assaults that
had brought him to the roof of
the high-rise, but the camera’s
role was now wholly
emblematic. He felt the same
identification with the camera
that he did with the dog.
However, for all his affection
Page 591
and loyalty towards the
animal, the dog would soon be
leaving him—they would both
be present at a celebratory
dinner when they reached the
roof, he reflected with a touch
of gallows-humour, but the
poodle would be in the pot.
Thinking of this supper to
come—his first decent meal
for weeks—Wilder watched
the old woman muttering
about. He wiped his beard,
and cautiously raised himself
from his knees. He pulled the
dog’s lead, a length of electric
cord, and hissed between his
Page 592
broken teeth.
As if on cue, the dog
whimpered. It stood up,
shivering, and climbed two
steps. In full view of the old
woman it crouched down and
began to whine plaintively.
The old woman retreated
swiftly behind her barricade.
Within seconds a heavy
carving-knife materialized in
her hand. Her canny eyes
peered down at the dog
cringing on the steps below
her. As it rolled on to its side
and exposed its loins her eyes
were riveted on its fleshy
Page 593
stomach and shoulders.
As the dog whimpered again,
Wilder watched from behind
the dining-table. This moment
never failed to amuse him. In
fact, the higher he climbed the
building, the greater its
potential for humour. He still
held the lead, which trailed
behind the dog down the steps,
but was careful to leave it
loose. The old woman, unable
to take her eyes off the dog,
stepped through the gap in the
barricade. She whistled
through the gap in her false
teeth, and beckoned the dog
Page 594
forward.
“Poor pet. You’re lost, aren’t
you, beauty? Come on, up
here . . .”
Barely able to contain his glee
at the spectacle of this
bald-headed crone fawning
with exaggerated pathos over
the dog, Wilder leaned against
the table, laughing soundlessly
to himself. At any moment she
would be in for a shock, his
heavy boot on her neck.
Behind the barricade a second
figure appeared. A young
woman of about thirty,
probably the daughter, peered
Page 595
over the old woman’s
shoulder. Her suede jacket
was unbuttoned to reveal a
pair of grimy breasts, but her
hair was elaborately wound
into a mass of rollers, as if she
were preparing parts of her
body for some formal gala to
which the rest of herself had
not been invited.
The two women stared down
at the dog, their faces
expressionless. As the
daughter waited with the
carving-knife the mother
edged down the steps.
Muttering reassuringly, she
Page 596
patted the poodle on the head
and bent down to take the
lead.
As her strong fingers closed
around the cord Wilder leapt
forward. The dog sprang to
life, hurled itself up the steps
and sank its teeth into the old
woman’s arm. With surprising
agility, she darted through the
gap in the barricade, the dog
clamped to her arm. Barely in
time, Wilder followed her,
kicking back the writing-desk
before the daughter could lock
it into place. He dragged the
poodle from the old woman’s
Page 597
bloodied arm, seized her by
the neck and flung her
sideways across a stack of
cardboard cartons. She lay
there stunned, like a
dishevelled duchess surprised
to find herself drunk at a ball.
As Wilder turned away,
wrestling with the dog, the
daughter ran towards him.
She had thrown the
carving-knife aside. In one
hand she held her hair curlers,
in the other a silver handbag
pistol. Wilder sidestepped out
of her way, knocked the pistol
from her hand and clubbed
Page 598
her backwards across the
barricade.
As the two women sat panting
on the floor, Wilder looked
down at the pistol at his feet,
little more than a child’s
bright toy. He picked it up and
began to inspect his new
domain. He was standing in
the entrance to the 35th-floor
swimming-pool. The tank of
foetid water, filled with debris,
reflected the garbage-sacks
heaped around the tiled verge.
A small den had been built
inside a stationary elevator in
the lobby. Beside a burnt-out
Page 599
fire an elderly man—a former
tax-consultant, Wilder seemed
to recall—lay asleep,
apparently unaware of the
spasm of violence that had
taken place. A chimney flue,
fashioned from two lengths of
balcony drainage pipe, exited
over his head through the roof
of the elevator.
Still holding the pistol, Wilder
watched the two women. The
mother sat among the
cardboard cartons,
matter-of-factly bandaging
her arm with a strip torn from
her silk dress. The daughter
Page 600
squatted on the floor by the
barricade, rubbing the bruise
on her mouth and patting the
head of Wilder’s poodle.
Wilder peered up the staircase
to the 36thfloor. The skirmish
had excited him, and he was
tempted to press on all the
way to the roof. However, he
had not eaten for more than a
day, and the smell of animal
fat hung in the air around the
fire by the entrance to the den.
Wilder beckoned the young
woman towards him. Her
bland, rather bovine face was
vaguely familiar. Had she once
Page 601
been the wife of a
film-company executive? She
climbed to her feet and walked
up to him, staring with interest
at the emblems painted across
his chest and shoulders, and at
his exposed genitals. Pocketing
the pistol, Wilder pulled her
towards the den. They stepped
over the old man and entered
the elevator. Curtains hung
from the walls, and two
mattresses covered the floor.
Holding the young woman to
him, an arm around her
shoulders, Wilder sat down
against the rear wall of the
Page 602
elevator. He gazed across the
lobby at the yellow water of
the swimming-pool. Several of
the changing cubicles had been
converted into small,
single-tenant cabins, but they
were all now abandoned. Two
bodies, he noted, floated in the
pool, barely distinguishable
from the other debris, the
kitchen garbage and pieces of
furniture.
Wilder helped himself to the
last of the small cat that had
been barbecued above the fire.
His teeth pulled at the stringy
meat, the still warm fat almost
Page 603
intoxicating him as he sucked
at the skewer.
The young woman leaned
affably against him, content to
have Wilder’s strong arm
around her shoulders. The
fresh smell of her body
surprised him—the higher up
the apartment building he
moved the cleaner were the
women. Wilder looked down
at her unmarked face, as open
and amiable as a domestic
animal’s. She seemed to have
been totally untouched by
events within the high-rise, as
if waiting in some kind of
Page 604
insulated chamber for Wilder
to appear. He tried to speak to
her, but found himself
grunting, unable to form the
words with his broken teeth
and scarred tongue.
Pleasantly high on the meat,
he lay back comfortably
against the young woman,
playing with the silver
handbag pistol. Without
thinking, he opened the front
of her suede jacket and
loosened her breasts. He
placed his hands over the
small nipples and settled
himself against her. He felt
Page 605
drowsy, murmuring to the
young woman while she
stroked the painted stripes on
his chest and shoulders, her
fingers moving endlessly
across his skin as if writing a
message to him.
Lying back in this comfortable
lakeside pavilion Wilder
rested during the early
afternoon. The young woman
sat beside him, her breasts
against his face, nursing this
huge, nearly naked man with
his painted body and exposed
loins. Her mother and father
Page 606
pottered about in the lobby.
Now and then the old woman
in her evening gown pulled a
piece of furniture at random
from the barricade and
chopped it into kindling with
the carving knife.
Wilder ignored them,
conscious only of the young
woman’s body and the huge
pillars that carried the
apartment building upwards
to the roof. Through the
windows around the
swimming-pool he could see
the towers of the four high-rise
blocks nearby, suspended like
Page 607
rectilinear clouds within the
afternoon sky. The warmth
within the elevator, which
seemed to emanate from the
young woman’s breasts, had
drained all will and energy
from him. Her calm face gazed
down at Wilder reassuringly.
She had accepted him as she
would any marauding hunter.
First she would try to kill him,
but failing this give him food
and her body, breast-feed him
back to a state of childishness
and even, perhaps, feel
affection for him. Then, the
moment he was asleep, cut his
Page 608
throat. The synopsis of the
ideal marriage.
Rallying himself, Wilder sat
up and put his boot into the
poodle lying asleep on the
mattress outside the elevator.
The yelp of pain revived
Wilder. He pushed the young
woman away. He needed to
sleep, but first he would move
to a safer hiding-place, or the
crone and her daughter would
make short work of him.
Without looking back, he
stood up and dragged the dog
behind him. He slipped the
silver pistol into the waistband
Page 609
of his trousers and checked the
patterns on his chest and
shoulders. Carrying the
cine-camera, he climbed past
the barricade and re-entered
the staircase, leaving behind
the quiet encampment and the
young woman beside her
yellow lake.
As he moved up the steps
everything was silent. The
staircase was carpeted,
muffling the tread of his boots,
and he was too distracted by
the sounds of his own
breathing to notice that the
walls around him had been
Page 610
freshly painted, their white
surfaces gleaming in the
afternoon sunlight like the
entrance to an abattoir.
Wilder climbed to the
37thfloor, smelling the icy air
moving across his naked body
from the open sky. He could
hear now, more clearly than
ever before, the crying of gulls.
When the dog began to
whimper, reluctant to go any
further, he turned it loose, and
watched it disappear down the
stairs.
The 37thfloor was deserted,
apartment doors open on the
Page 611
bright air. Too exhausted to
think, he found an empty
apartment, barricaded himself
into the living-room and sank
into a deep sleep on the floor.
18/The Blood Garden
By contrast, Anthony Royal,
high on the open roof three
Page 612
floors above, had never been
more awake. Ready at last to
join the sea-birds, he stood at
the windows of his peat-house,
looking out over the open
plazas of the development
project towards the distant
mouth of the river. Washed by
the recent rain, the morning
air was clear but frozen, and
the river flowed from the city
like a stream of ice. For two
days Royal had eaten nothing,
but far from exhausting him
the absence of food had
stimulated every nerve and
muscle in his body. The
Page 613
shrieking of the gulls filled the
air, and seemed to tear at the
exposed tissues of his brain.
They rose from the elevator
heads and balustrades in a
continuous fountain, soared
into the air to form an
expanding vortex and dived
down again towards the
sculpture-garden.
Royal was certain now that
they were calling for him. He
had been deserted by the
dogs—as soon as he freed
them they had disappeared
into the stairways and
corridors below—and only the
Page 614
white alsatian remained. It sat
at Royal’s feet by the open
windows, mesmerized by the
movement of the birds. Its
wounds had healed now, and
its thick arctic coat was white
again. Royal missed the stains,
as he did the bloody
hand-prints that Mrs Wilder
had washed from his jacket.
The little food Royal had
taken with him before sealing
himself into the penthouse he
had given to the dog, but
already he felt himself beyond
hunger. For three days he had
seen no one, and was glad to
Page 615
have cut himself off from his
wife and neighbours. Looking
up at the whirling cloud of
gulls, he knew that they were
the true residents of the
high-rise. Without realizing it
at the time, he had designed
the sculpture-garden for them
alone.
Royal shivered in the cold air.
He wore his safari-jacket, and
the thin linen gave him no
protection against the wind
moving across the concrete
roof. In the over-lit air the
white fabric was grey by
comparison with Royal’s
Page 616
chalk-like skin. Barely able to
control himself, and uncertain
whether the scars of his
accident had begun to reopen
themselves, he stepped on to
the terrace and walked across
the roof.
The gulls sidled around him,
rolling their heads and wiping
their beaks against the
concrete. The surface was
streaked with blood. For the
first time Royal saw that the
ledges and balustrades were
covered with these bloody
notches, the symbols of a
mysterious calligraphy.
Page 617
Voices sounded in the
distance, a murmur of women.
In the central section of the
observation deck, beyond the
sculpture-garden, a group of
women residents had gathered
for some kind of public
discussion.
Unsettled by this intrusion into
his private landscape, and its
reminder that he was not yet
alone in the apartment
building, Royal retreated
behind the rear wall of the
sculpture-garden. The voices
moved around him, talking
away informally as if this were
Page 618
the latest of many similar
visits. Perhaps he had been
asleep during their previous
excursions, or with the cooler
weather they had decided to
move their meeting place
further along the roof to the
shelter of his penthouse.
The vortex of birds was
breaking up. As Royal
returned to the penthouse the
spiral had begun to
disintegrate. The gulls dived
away across the face of the
building far below. Urging the
alsatian ahead of him, Royal
emerged from behind the rear
Page 619
wall of the sculpture-garden.
Two of the women were
standing inside the penthouse,
one of them with a hand on the
callisthenics machine. What
startled Royal was their casual
stance, as if they were about to
move into a vacation villa they
had recently rented.
Royal retreated behind an
elevator head. After being
alone with the birds and the
white alsatian for so long the
sight of these human intruders
unsettled him. He pulled the
dog against his legs, deciding
to wait in the sculpture-garden
Page 620
until the visiting party had
left.
He pushed back the rear door
of the garden, and walked
between the painted geometric
forms. Dozens of the gulls
surrounded him, crowded
together on the tiled floor.
They followed Royal
expectantly, almost as if they
had been waiting for him to
bring something to them.
His feet slipped on the wet
tiles. Looking down, he found
a piece of gristle attached to
his shoe. Pulling it away, he
leaned against one of the
Page 621
concrete sculptures, a
waist-high sphere that had
been painted bright carmine.
When he drew his hand away
it was wet with blood. As the
birds strutted ahead, clearing
an open space for him, he saw
that the whole interior of the
play-garden was drenched
with blood. The tiled floor was
slick with bright mucilage.
The alsatian snuffled greedily,
wolfing down a shred of flesh
lying by the edge of the
paddling pool. Appalled,
Royal stared at the
blood-spattered tiles, at his
Page 622
bright hands, at the white
bones picked clean by the
birds.
It was late afternoon when
Wilder woke. Cold air moved
through the empty room,
flicking at a newspaper on the
floor. The apartment was
without shadows. Wilder
listened to the wind moving
down the ventilation shafts.
The screaming of the gulls had
ended, as if the birds had gone
away for ever. Wilder sat on
the floor in a corner of the
living-room, an apex of this
Page 623
untenanted cube. Feeling the
pressure of his back against
the wall, he could almost
believe that he was the first
and last occupant of this
apartment building.
He climbed to his feet and
walked across the floor to the
balcony. Far below, he could
see the thousands of cars in the
parking-lots, but they were
screened from him by a faint
mist, part of the corroborative
detail of a world other than his
own.
Sucking at the traces of animal
fat that clung to his fingers,
Page 624
Wilder entered the kitchen.
The cupboards and
refrigerator were empty. He
thought of the young woman
and her warm body in the
elevator beside the pool,
wondering whether to go back
to her. He remembered her
stroking his chest and
shoulders, and could feel the
pressure of her hands on his
skin.
Still sucking his fingers, and
thinking of himself abandoned
in this huge building, Wilder
stepped out of the apartment.
The corridor was silent, the
Page 625
cold air stirring the tags of
refuse on the floor. He carried
the cine-camera in his left
hand, but he was no longer
certain what its function was,
or why he had kept it with him
for so long.
The silver pistol, by contrast,
he recognized immediately. He
held it in his right hand,
pointing it playfully at the
open doorways, and
half-hoping that someone
would come out to join him in
his game. The top floors of the
building had been partially
invaded by the sky. He saw
Page 626
white clouds through an
elevator shaft, framed in the
skylight of the stairwell as he
climbed to the 40thfloor.
Feinting with the pistol,
Wilder darted across the
elevator lobby of the 40thfloor.
There were no barricades
here, and a recent attempt had
been made at housekeeping.
The garbage-sacks had been
removed, the barricades
dismantled, the lobby
furniture re-installed.
Someone had scrubbed the
walls, clearing away all traces
of the graffiti, duty rosters and
Page 627
elevator embarkation times.
Behind him, a door closed in
the wind, cutting off a shaft of
light. Enjoying this game with
himself in the empty building,
and certain that someone
would soon turn up to play
with him, Wilder dropped to
one knee and levelled the pistol
at an imaginary assailant. He
darted down the corridor,
kicked back the door and
burst into the apartment.
The apartment was the largest
he had seen in the building, far
more spacious than any others
on the upper floors. Like the
Page 628
lobby and corridor, the rooms
had been carefully cleaned, the
carpets re-laid, the curtains
hung around the high
windows. On the polished
dining-room table stood two
silver candlesticks.
Impressed by this sight,
Wilder wandered around the
gleaming table. In some
confused way he felt that he
had already been here, many
years before he came to this
empty building. The high
ceiling and masculine
furniture reminded him of a
house he had visited as a small
Page 629
child. He wandered around the
refurnished rooms, almost
expecting to find his childhood
toys, a cot and playpen laid
out for his arrival.
Between the bedrooms a
private staircase led upwards
to another chamber, and a
small suite of rooms
overlooking the roof. Excited
by the mystery and challenge
of this secret staircase, Wilder
began to climb the steps.
Licking the last of the fat from
his fingers, he trumpeted
happily to himself.
He was half-way up the
Page 630
staircase, climbing towards
the open air, when something
blocked his path. The gaunt
figure of a tall, white-haired
man had stepped forward
from the shadows. Far older
than Wilder, his hair
dishevelled by the wind, he
stood at the head of the
staircase, looking down
silently at the intruder below
him. His face was concealed by
the harsh light, but the scars
on the bony points of his
forehead stood out clearly, like
the fresh hand-stains that
marked his white jacket.
Page 631
Dimly recognizing this wild
old man of the observation
roof, Wilder stopped on the
stairs. He was unsure whether
Royal had come to play with
him or to reprimand him.
From Royal’s nervous
posture, and his destitute
appearance, Wilder guessed
that he had been hiding
somewhere, but not as part of
a game.
Hoping nonetheless to enlist
him, Wilder waved his pistol
playfully at Royal. To his
surprise the architect flinched
back, as if pretending to be
Page 632
frightened. As Wilder climbed
towards him he raised the
chromium cane in his hand
and hurled it down the
staircase.
The metal rod struck the
hand-rail and whipped across
Wilder’s left arm. Stung by
the pain of the blow, Wilder
dropped the cine-camera. His
arm was numb, and for a
moment he felt helpless, like
an abused child. As the
architect advanced down the
steps towards him, Wilder
raised the silver pistol and
shot him through the chest.
Page 633
When the brief explosion had
faded across the cold air,
Wilder climbed the last of the
steps. The architect’s body lay
awkwardly across the
staircase, as if he were
pretending to be dead. His
scarred face, drained of all
blood, was turned away from
Wilder. He was still alive,
staring through the open
windows at the last of the
birds that the explosion had
driven into the air.
Confused by this game, and its
unexpected turns, Wilder
Page 634
stepped over him. The
cine-camera lay at the bottom
of the staircase, but he decided
to leave it there. Rubbing his
injured arm, he threw away
the pistol that had jarred his
hand and stepped through the
french windows.
Twenty yards away, children
were playing in the
sculpture-garden. The doors,
chained for so long to exclude
them, were now wide open,
and Wilder could see the
geometric forms of the
play-sculptures, their vivid
colours standing out against
Page 635
the white walls. Everything
had been freshly painted, and
the roof was vibrant with light.
Wilder waved to the children,
but none of them saw him.
Their presence revived him,
and he felt a surge of triumph
at having climbed all the way
to the roof to find them. The
strange, scarred man in the
blood-printed jacket lying on
the steps behind him had not
understood his game.
One of the children, an infant
boy of two, was naked,
running in and out of the
sculptures. Quickly Wilder
Page 636
loosened his ragged trousers
and let them fall to his ankles.
Stumbling a little, as if he was
forgetting how to use his legs,
he ran forward naked to join
his friends.
In the centre of the
sculpture-garden, beside the
empty paddling pool, a woman
was lighting a large fire from
pieces of furniture. Her strong
hands adjusted a heavy spit
assembled from the chromium
tubing of a large callisthenics
device. She squatted beside the
fire, stacking the chair-legs as
the children played together.
Page 637
Wilder walked forward, shyly
hoping that the woman would
notice the patterns painted
across his chest. As he waited
for the children to ask him to
play with them he saw that a
second woman was standing
ten feet away to his left. She
was wearing an ankle-length
dress and a long gingham
apron, her hair drawn back
off her severe face and tied in
a knot behind her neck.
Wilder stopped among the
statues, embarrassed that no
one had noticed him. Two
more women, dressed in the
Page 638
same formal way, had
appeared by the gate. Others
were stepping forward among
the sculptures, surrounding
Wilder in a loose circle. They
seemed to belong to another
century and another
landscape, except for their
sunglasses, whose dark shades
stood out against the
blood-notched concrete of the
roof-terrace.
Wilder waited for them to
speak to him. He was glad to
be naked and show off his
body with its painted patterns.
At last the woman kneeling by
Page 639
the fire looked over her
shoulder at him. Despite her
change of dress he recognized
her as his wife Helen. He was
about to run forward to her,
but her matter-of-fact gaze,
her unimpressed appraisal of
his heavy loins, made him
stop.
By now he was aware that he
knew all the women around
him. Dimly he recognized
Charlotte Melville, a scarf
around her bruised throat,
watching him without hostility.
Standing next to Jane
Sheridan was Royal’s young
Page 640
wife, now a governess
supervising the smallest
children. He recognized the
jeweller’s widow in her long
fur coat, her face made up like
his own body with red paint.
Looking over his shoulder, if
only to confirm that his escape
was blocked, he could see the
stately figure of the
children’s-story writer seated
in the open window of the
penthouse like a queen in her
pavilion. In a last moment of
hope he thought that perhaps
she would read him a story.
In front of him the children in
Page 641
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,
Page 642
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
25thfloor, Robert Laing
stirred the bright embers of
the fire he had lit from pages
Page 643
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.”
Page 644
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
Page 645
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
Page 646
balcony fire. Perhaps there
was game to be found on the
lower levels, though Laing
never ventured below the
20thfloor. The stench from the
swimming-pool on the
10thfloor 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
Page 647
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
Page 648
managed to descend all the
way from the 40thfloor.
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.
Page 649
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.
Page 650
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
Page 651
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
Page 652
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
Page 653
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
Page 654
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
Page 655
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.
Page 656
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
Page 657
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
Page 658
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
Page 659
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
Page 660
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
Page 661
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
Page 662
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
Page 663
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
Page 664
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 7thfloor all the lights were
out. Already torch-beams
were moving about in the
darkness, as the residents
Page 665
made their first confused
attempts to discover where
they were. Laing watched
them contentedly, ready to
welcome them to their new
world.
Page 666

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