All day Richard Wilder had been preparing for his ascent. After the noise-filled night, which he had spent calming his sons and giggling wife, Wilder left for the television studios. Once there, he cancelled his appointments and told his secretary that he would be away for the next few days. While he spoke, Wilder was barely aware of this puzzled young woman or his curious colleagues in the nearby offices-he had shaved only the left side of his face, and had not changed his clothes since the previous day. Tired out, he briefly fell asleep at his desk, watched by his secretary as he slumped snoring across his unread correspondence. After no more than an hour at the studios, he packed his briefcase and returned to the high-rise.
For Wilder, this brief period away from the apartment building was almost dreamlike in its unreality. He left his car in the parking-lot without locking it and walked towards the entrance, a growing sense of relief coming over him. Even the debris scattered at the foot of the building, the empty bottles and garbage-stained cars with their broken windscreens, in a strange way merely reinforced his conviction that the only real events in his life were those taking place within the high-rise.
Although it was after eleven o'clock, Helen and the children were still asleep. A film of white dust covered the furniture in the lounge and bedrooms, as if he had returned to the apartment and its three sleepers after an immense period of time had condensed around them like a stone frost. Wilder had blocked the air-conditioning vents during the night, and the apartment was without sound or movement. Wilder looked down at his wife, lying on the bed surrounded by the children's books she was reviewing. Aware that he would be leaving her in a few hours, he regretted that she was too weak to come with him. They might have climbed the high-rise together.
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 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 9th- 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 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 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 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 37th floor. He had found it difficult to be himself in her apartment. All the time he was conscious of the distance to the 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 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 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 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 37th floor. 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, 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 10th floor, where he stood a better chance of finding an ascending elevator.
When he reached the 5th floor 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 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 10th floor the opposing group had moved off in a posse. Wilder stepped over the 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 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 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 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 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 14th floor, picking his way among the discarded cans and 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 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. 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 curtly waved him away.
All the way down to the 10th floor 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 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 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 masseuse from the 5th floor, 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 35th floor?"
"The people on the 30th are 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 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 37th floor, 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 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 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 locked, garbage thrown down the stairwells or dumped on rival landings.
On the 29th floor 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 1st floor. Wilder walked gingerly down the corridor between their apartments, glad of the company of the young 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 37th floor. 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 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 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.
"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 40th floor 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 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 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 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.
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 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 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 37th floor. 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 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.
excerpt from the book: High Rise by J.G.Ballard
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