Towards the Summit
by J.G. Ballard
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 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, 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 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 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 40th floor, his car would join the line of expensive wrecks nearest to the apartment block.
For several hours the previous night Wilder had reached the 20th floor 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 17th floor 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, 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.
He had reached the 20th floor 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 20th floor 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 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 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 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, "for appearing ON".
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 40th floor. 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 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, 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 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 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, 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.
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.
Two young women from the 7th floor, 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.
"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 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, 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 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 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 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 29th floor. During the noon armistice the chil-dren's-story writer and her minions moved through the apartment 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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 5th floor landing Wilder paused, surprised that there was no one around. He waited 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 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 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 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 3rd floor-sat stoically at her check-out point, presiding like 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.
"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 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 25th and 30th floors it would be brought to a halt at the whim of a look-out, marking the end of the mid-day armistice and the beginnings of another night.
Without thinking, Wilder quickened his pace. He reached the doors as the elevator paused at the 9th floor 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 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 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.
excerpt from the book: High Rise by J.G. Ballard
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