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英语听力|High Rise 05:The Vertical City

 

5/The Vertical City

 


Whatever plans he might devise for his ascent, whatever route to the summit, it was soon
obvious to Wilder that at its present rate of erosion little of the high-rise would be left.
Almost everything possible was going wrong with the services. He helped Helen straighten the


apartment, and tried to jerk some sense of vitality into his dormant family by drawing the blinds
and moving noisily around the rooms.
Wilder found it difficult to revive them. At five-minute intervals the air-conditioning
ceased to work, and in the warm summer weather the apartment was heavy with stagnant air. Wilder
noticed that he had already begun to accept the foetid atmosphere as normal. Helen told him that
she had heard a rumour from the other residents that dog excrement had been deliberately dropped
into the air-conditioning flues by the upper-level tenants. Strong winds circulated around the
open plazas of the development project, buffeting the lower floors of the apartment building as
they swirled through the concrete legs. Wilder opened the windows, hoping for some fresh air, but
the apartment soon filled with dust and powdered cement. The ashy film already covered the tops of
cupboards and bookshelves.
By the late afternoon the residents began to return from their offices. The elevators were
noisy and overcrowded. Three of them were now out of order, and the remainder were jammed with
impatient tenants trying to reach their floors. From the open door of his apartment Wilder watched
his neighbours jostle each other aggressively like bad-tempered miners emerging from their pitcages.
They strode past him, briefcases and handbags wielded like the instruments of an overnervous
body armour.
On an impulse Wilder decided to test his rights of free passage around the building, and
his access to all its services, particularly the swimming-pool on the 35th floor and the
children's sculpture-garden on the observation roof. Taking his camera, he set out for the roof
with the older of his two sons. However, he soon found that the high-speed elevators were either
out of order, under repair, or kept permanently at the top floors with their doors jammed open.
The only access to them was through the private outside entrance to which Wilder did not have a
key.
All the more determined now to reach the roof, Wilder waited for one of the intermediate
elevators which would carry them as far as the 35th floor. When it arrived he pushed his way into
the crowded cabin, surrounded by passengers who stared down at Wilder's six-year-old son with
unfeigned hostility. At the 23rd floor the elevator refused to move any further. The passengers
scrummaged their way out, drumming their briefcases against the closed doors of the elevators in
what seemed to be a ritual display of temper.
Wilder set off up the stairs, carrying his small son in his arms. With his powerful
physique, he was strong enough to climb all the way to the roof. Two floors above, however, the
staircase was blocked by a group of local residents -- among them the offensive young orthodontic
surgeon who was Robert Laing's neighbour -- trying to free a garbage-disposal chute. Suspicious
that they might be tampering with the air-conditioning ducts, Wilder pushed through them, but was
briskly shouldered aside by a man he recognized as a newsreader for a rival television company.
"This staircase is closed, Wilder! Can't you get the point?"
"What?" Wilder was amazed by this effrontery. "How do you mean?"
"_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 son, who was nervous enough already in
this harsh atmosphere, he retreated to the elevator and returned to the lower floors.
The confrontation, however minor, had unsettled Wilder. Ignoring Helen, he prowled around
the apartment, swinging the camera to and fro. He felt excited in a confused way, partly by his
plans for the documentary, but also by the growing atmosphere of collision and hostility.
From the balcony he watched the huge, Alcatraz blocks of the nearby high-rises. The
material about these buildings, visual and sociological, was almost limitless. They would film the
exteriors from a helicopter, and from the nearest block four hundred yards away -- in his mind's
eye he could already see a long, sixty-second zoom, slowly moving from the whole building in frame
to a close-up of a single apartment, one cell in this nightmare termitary.
The first half of the programme would examine life in the high-rise in terms of its design
errors and minor irritations, while the remainder would then look at the psychology of living in a
community of two thousand people boxed up into the sky -- everything from the incidence of crime,
divorce and sexual misdemeanours to the turnover of residents, their health, the frequency of
insomnia and other psychosomatic disorders. All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast
a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area
of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical
townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants.
The psychology of high-rise life had been exposed with damning results. The absence of
humour, for example, had always struck Wilder as the single most significant feature -- all


research by investigators confirmed that the tenants of high-rises made no jokes about them. In a
strict sense, life there was "eventless". On the basis of his own experience, Wilder was convinced
that the high-rise apartment was an insufficiently flexible shell to provide the kind of home
which encouraged activities, as distinct from somewhere to eat and sleep. Living in high-rises
required a special type of behaviour, one that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly
mad. A psychotic would have a ball here, Wilder reflected. Vandalism had plagued these slab and
tower blocks since their inception. Every torn-out piece of telephone equipment, every handle
wrenched off a fire safety door, every kicked-in electricity meter represented a stand against decerebration.
What angered Wilder most of all about life in the apartment building was the way in which
an apparently homogeneous collection of high-income professional people had split into three
distinct and hostile camps. The old social sub-divisions, based on power, capital and selfinterest,
had re-asserted themselves here as anywhere else.
In effect, the high-rise had already divided itself into the three classical social
groups, its lower, middle and upper classes. The 10th-floor shopping mall formed a clear boundary
between the lower nine floors, with their "proletariat" of film technicians, air-hostesses and the
like, and the middle section of the high-rise, which extended from the 10th floor to the swimmingpool
and restaurant deck on the 35th. This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its
middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions -- the
doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists who worked, not for themselves, but for
medical institutes and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion
of those eager to settle for second best.
Above them, on the top five floors of the high-rise, was its upper class, the discreet
oligarchy of minor tycoons and entrepreneurs, television actresses and careerist academics, with
their high-speed elevators and superior services, their carpeted staircases. It was they who set
the pace of the building. It was their complaints which were acted upon first, and it was they who
subtly dominated life within the high-rise, deciding when the children could use the swimmingpools
and roof garden, the menus in the restaurant and the high charges that kept out almost
everyone but themselves. Above all, it was their subtle patronage that kept the middle ranks in
line, this constantly dangling carrot of friendship and approval.
The thought of these exclusive residents, as high above him in their top-floor redoubts as
any feudal lord above a serf, filled Wilder with a growing sense of impatience and resentment.
However, it was difficult to organize any kind of counter-attack. It would be easy enough to play
the populist leader and become the spokesman of his neighbours on the lower floors, but they
lacked any cohesion or self-interest; they would be no match for the well-disciplined professional
people in the central section of the apartment building. There was a latent easy-goingness about
them, an inclination to tolerate an undue amount of interference before simply packing up and
moving on. In short, their territorial instinct, in its psychological and social senses, had
atrophied to the point where they were ripe for exploitation.
To rally his neighbours Wilder needed something that would give them a strong feeling of
identity. The television documentary would do this perfectly and in terms, moreover, which they
could understand. The documentary would dramatize all their resentments, and expose the way in
which the services and facilities were being abused by the upper-level tenants. It might even be
necessary to foment trouble surreptitiously, to exaggerate the tensions present in the high-rise.
However, as Wilder soon discovered, the shape of his documentary was already being
determined.
Fired by his resolve to fight back, Wilder decided to give his wife and children a break
from his ceaseless pacing. The air-conditioning now worked for only five minutes in each hour, and
by dusk the apartment was stuffy and humid. The noise of over-loud conversations and recordplayers
at full volume reverberated off the balconies above them. Helen Wilder moved along the
already closed windows, her small hands pressed numbly against the latches as if trying to push
away the night.
Too preoccupied to help her, Wilder set off with a towel and swimming trunks to the pool
on the 10th floor. A few telephone calls to his neighbours on the lower floors had confirmed that
they were keen to take part in the documentary, but Wilder needed participants from the upper and
middle levels of the high-rise.
The out-of-order elevators had still not been repaired, and Wilder took to the stairs.
Sections of the staircase had already been turned into a garbage-well by the residents above.
Broken glass littered the steps, cutting his shoes.


The shopping mall was crowded with people, milling about and talking at the tops of their
voices as if waiting for a political rally to start. Usually deserted at this hour, the swimmingpool
was packed with residents playing the fool in the water, pushing each other off the tiled
verge and splashing the changing stalls. The attendant had gone, abandoning his booth, and already
the pool was beginning to look neglected, discarded towels lying in the gutters.
In the showers Wilder recognized Robert Laing. Although the doctor turned his back on him
Wilder ignored the rebuff and stood under the next spray. The two men spoke briefly but in noncommittal
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 divingboards.
"No -- are you expecting them?" Laing seemed genuinely surprised.
"They'll want to question the witnesses. What happened, in fact? Was he pushed? His wife
looks hefty enough -- perhaps she wanted a quick divorce?"
Laing smiled patiently, as if this remark in doubtful taste was all he expected of Wilder.
His sharp eyes were deliberately vague, and remained closed to any probing. "I know nothing about
the accident, Wilder. It may have been suicide, I suppose. Are you personally concerned?"
"Aren't you, Laing? It's odd that a man can fall from a window forty floors above the
ground without there being any kind of investigation . . ."
Laing stepped on to the diving board. His body was unusually well muscled, Wilder noticed,
almost as if he had been taking a good deal of recent exercise, doing dozens of push-ups.
Laing waited for a clear space in the crowded water. "I think we can rely on his
neighbours to look after everything."
Wilder lifted his voice. "I've begun planning the television documentary -- his death
would make a good starting point."
Laing looked down at Wilder with sudden interest. He shook his head firmly. "I'd forget
all about it -- if I were you, Wilder." He stepped to the end of the board, sprang twice and made
a hard, neat dive into the yellowing water.
Swimming by himself at the shallow end of the pool, Wilder watched Laing and his party of
friends playing about in the deep end. Previously Wilder would have joined them, particularly as
there were two attractive women in the group -- Charlotte Melville, whom he had not seen for
several days about their projected parents' association, and the tyro alcoholic Eleanor Powell.
Wilder had obviously been excluded. Laing's pointed use of his surname marked the distance between
them, like his vagueness about the dead jeweller, and his sidestepping of the television
documentary, in which he had once been keenly interested -- if anything, Laing's approval had
inspired Wilder to develop the idea into a provisional treatment. Presumably Laing, with his
excessive need for privacy, had no wish to see the collective folly of the residents, their
childish squabbles and jealousies, exposed on the nation's television screens.
Or was there some other impulse at work -- a need to shut away, most of all from oneself,
any realization of what was actually happening in the high-rise, so that events there could follow
their own logic and get even more out of hand? For all his own professed enthusiasm about the
documentary, Wilder knew that he had never discussed it with anyone who did not live inside the
apartment building. Even Helen, talking to her mother that afternoon on the telephone, had said
vaguely, "Everything's fine. There's some slight trouble with the air-conditioning, but it's being
fixed."
This growing defiance of reality no longer surprised Wilder. The decision that the chaos
within the high-rise was a matter for the residents themselves explained the mystery of the dead
jeweller. At least a thousand people must have seen the body -- Wilder remembered stepping on to
the balcony and being startled, not by the sight of the dead man, but by the huge audience
reaching up to the sky. Had anyone notified the police? He had taken it for granted, but now he
was less sure. Wilder found it hard to believe that this sophisticated and self-important man
would commit suicide. Yet no one was in the least concerned, accepting the possibility of murder
in the same way that the swimmers in the pool accepted the wine bottles and beer cans rolling
around the tiled floor under their feet.
During the evening, Wilder's speculations took second place to the struggle to preserve
his sanity. After settling the two boys in their bedroom, he and his wife sat down to dinner, only
to find that a sudden electricity failure had plunged them into darkness. Sitting opposite each
other at the dining-room table, they listened to the continuous noise from the corridor, their


neighbours arguing in the elevator lobby, transistors blaring through open apartment doors.
Helen began to laugh, relaxing for the first time in weeks. "Dick, it's a huge children's
party that's got out of hand." She reached out to calm Wilder. In the faint light that crossed the
room from the nearby high-rise her slim face had an almost unreal calm, as if she no longer felt
herself to be part of the events taking place around her.
Restraining his temper, Wilder hunched heavily in the darkness over the table. He was
tempted more than once to plunge his fist into his soup. When the lights returned he tried to
telephone the building manager, but the switchboard was jammed with calls. At last a recorded
voice told him that the manager had fallen ill, and that all complaints would be played through
and noted for future attention.
"My God, he's actually going to listen to all these tapes -- there must be miles of them .
. ."
"Are you sure?" Helen was giggling to herself. "Perhaps no one else minds. You're the only
one."
The tampering with the electricity system had affected the air-conditioning. Dust was
spurting from the vents in the walls. Exasperated, Wilder drove his fists together. Like a huge
and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility
upon them. Wilder tried to close the grilles, but within minutes they were forced to take refuge
on the balcony. Their neighbours were crowded against their railings, craning up at the roof as if
hoping to catch sight of those responsible.
Leaving his wife, who was wandering light-headedly around the apartment and smiling at the
spurting dust, Wilder went out into the corridor. All the elevators were stationary in the upper
section of the building. A large group of his neighbours had gathered in the elevator lobby,
pounding rhythmically on the doors and complaining about various provocative acts by the residents
on the floors above.
Wilder pushed his way towards the centre, where two airline pilots were standing on a
lobby sofa and selecting the members of a raiding party. Wilder waited his turn, trying to catch
their attention, until he realized from the excited talk around him that their mission consisted
solely of going up to the 35th floor and publicly urinating into the water.
Wilder was about to argue with them, warning that a childish act of this kind would be
counter-productive. Until they were organized the notion of a punitive expedition was absurd, as
they were far too exposed to retaliation. However, at the last moment he turned away. He stood by
the doors to the staircase, aware that he no longer felt committed to this crowd of impulsive
tenants egging each other on into a futile exercise, Their real opponent was not the hierarchy of
residents in the heights far above them, but the image of the building in their own minds, the
multiplying layers of concrete that anchored them to the floor.
A cheer went up, followed by a chorus of catcalls. An elevator was at last descending from
the 35th floor, the indicator numerals flashing from right to left. While it approached, Wilder
thought of Helen and the two boys -- he knew already that his decision to dissociate himself from
his neighbours had nothing to do with any feelings of concern for his wife and children.
The elevator reached the 2nd floor and stopped. As the doors opened there was a sudden
hush. Lying on the floor of the cabin was the barely conscious figure of one of Wilder's
neighbours, a homosexual air-traffic controller who dined regularly in the 35th-floor restaurant.
He turned his bruised face away from the watching crowd and tried to button the shirt torn from
his chest. Seeing him clearly as the crowd stepped back, awed by this evidence of open violence.
Wilder heard someone say that two more floors, the 5th and 8th, were now in darkness.

 

 

 

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