When the walls are thin, every neighbour is a felon and a murderer. Police sirens scream every night, between twelve to three am. This nightly cacophony brings rise to speculations. Who will be robbed next? Who will be killed?
Every night, you wonder if it’s going to be you.
Tonight is the same. Tonight it is different. Above you, the usual racket of techno music after midnight layered above subdued drilling sounds that you’re quite sure is against the joint management council’s code of conduct. You’ve worked out that a contractor lives upstairs.
One night, your dreams of faraway beaches are interrupted by the sound of screams. Loud. Staccato. Doors slam against their hinges. You call security. Silence. For weeks. Months. Then came the sound of solitary feet, echoing in the cavernous vastness of an imagined apartment above your head. Feet that seem to follow your own steps. It is just your imagination, you tell yourself.
But tonight your ears bear witness to a thud, thud, thud. The ominous din of dragging, and the rhythm of nails continuously dropping as though some carpenter is conducting demonic ritual. Your ears capture evidence of a struggle, record the slap and desperate give of running feet against parquet. A window slides open, and a scream wings its way into a hazy Puchong night before it is muffled.
The drip starts. Right above your head. Drip. Drip. Drip.
It sounds too thick to be water. The register of that drip is red, a vibration thickening into black as each liquid drop making impact on parquet is rendered denser, and more gelatinous than the one preceding it. You imagine it is blood, slowly curdling, congealing, changing in colour as it falls from a dead body slumped over a chair.
Is it a leak? Is your ever-fertile mind providing more explanations for such limited sensate details?
Perhaps it is some sort of wild sex-play and is utterly consensual. Perhaps the drips are from some sort of aphrodisiac. It doesn’t have to be blood. It couldn’t be murder. Please don’t let it be murder.
You are frozen by doubt and fear in the middle of the night. In the middle of your bed. The bystander effect, it is called. The assumption that someone or other will make the leap to save whoever is in peril. If they are not already dead from blood loss, from the constant drip from the gash in their near-severed neck.
Alone beneath that apartment, you wonder when you will be next.
Every night the sirens scream, and police cars drive into the compound of your condominium complex. You’re never quite sure who they’re here for. You wonder when they’ll be coming for the apartment that sprawls right above you.
In the morning you look up as you walk down the corridor towards the elevator. The grilled enclosure that is the backyard of the condominium seems neat. Clean. The grilles are spotless, not dusty and mildewed like your own. Cleaning rags hang from them. Just inside, you can see a mop and a broom, head up, leaned against a freshly painted wall. The bathroom light is on. Everything looks as ordinary as a crime scene freshly vacated.
When you first moved into this apartment, the noise from the bedroom above yours had you frozen in fear. Loud industrial music, the cacophony of drilling. Occasionally, the wanton fury of a headboard banging against the wall in rhythmic motion. Those carnal sounds are not terrifying, merely annoying and occasionally amusing. The industrial sounds, the loud music however, were terror-inducing. They made you wonder what acts were obscured behind that aural curtain of syncopated drum-machine beats and layered electronica. This was before the sounds changed. As though a wholesome family had moved in. There used to be children living there, once upon a time, driving you around the bend with several hundred rounds of “Let it Go.” The sound of childish voices raised in song became a nightly occurrence. That was welcome. What was not welcome: the ceaseless screaming of a woman haranguing, and pleading in Cantonese. You called security then too, sure domestic violence was happening when sounds of crashing and screaming and the desperate banging of doors continued into the night. No, it could not be something more supernatural, could it?
You made a complaint six years ago. There was silence for months after that. It was obvious the place was empty. The emptiness in itself felt like a vastness above your head devoid of auditory signifiers. That void became terrifying as well. Later, the patter of childish feet returned, following the cavernous silence. The feet seemed to run in circles above your head while the sound of coins or marbles dropping from a height woke you up in the middle of the night. The strange sounds wake you up in the middle of the night when you do not want to notice the shadows gathering and congealing against the night-lamp lit wall, taking on the shape of a gigantic fox.
There was a period of silence again. For months. Footsteps returned, and with them the dropping, not of coins, or marbles. But of nails. Of infrequent drillings. Of that dripping sound that follows you everywhere, even when you are at work. Of the vulpine shadows that coalesce, sometimes as a single figure, sometimes as an entire family of foxes. You wanted so desperately to move out from this home that now curves around you with the ease of years every time the sounds magnify. Like the drip, like the inexplicable dropping of tiny objects that fall with a tinny echo to the floors. It is almost as though someone is shedding nails or screws from multiple pockets. It is almost as though nails are dropped by design.
What design could that be? Was it to drive senseless the lone woman who lives downstairs?
You think of something to do to fill the emptiness of your four walls. Something to distract, to push away the paranoia that you’re sure is making you read more into what is happening upstairs. You cannot afford to move out, to buy another apartment. Where would you go? Back to your family home in Klang? The thought was unbearable.
Instead, you decide to start a book-club. With some macabre jollity, you decide on Ballard’s High-Rise. You post flyers outside the management office, directing enquiries to a new email address. Your criteria for applications are cautious. You include a request for Malaysian NRIC numbers, unit and block number. You ask for a brief biodata and their books of choice. Security precautions, you put in your flyer. You are sure that people of like mind would understand.
To be extra careful, one day you pretend to come out of the elevator at the wrong floor. The floor above your own. You note the unit number. The outside of the unit, that space between the cream coloured grilles and the cream coloured front door, seems friendly. There is the prerequisite wooden cabinet for the storing of shoes, a friendly mat with “Welcome, Friend” emblazoned on it. Potted plants are arranged neatly on the table. It hardly looks like the façade of a serial killer’s apartment. But in your head you remind yourself of serial killers who have baby faces and lifestyles that belay the atrocities that they are capable of committing. Confident that you now have the unit number, you are resolved to deny any applications from your potentially macabre neighbour, should they arrive.
Being both neurotic and pessimistic, you are almost surprised when the first emails arrive, gushing excitedly about Tom Hiddleston, and Ballard, and even Cronenberg. You discover a secret cache of hidden solitary literary sorts amongst the five blocks in your condominium project. The first meeting of the book club had a rush akin to falling in love. Seven of you, shyly assembled in your living room, holding copies of High-Rise, sharing your favourite books both worthy and illicit. Laughing at the discrepancy between the lives lead in books and your mediocre lives in a Malaysian suburbia.
“It’s not too hard to imagine this happening in Kuala Lumpur,” says Jun, the engineer from Block A, who works in Kajang and commutes through the SKVE every morning. You share a route. You discuss briefly, car-pooling.
“Yes, we all live in gated communities like this project with its five-tier security system and CCTVs, with police cars driving in and out at night. But it feels that we’re living in fish bowls and maybe fish in such controlled situations can turn against each other,” says Ranjini, a banker who works on the other side of Puchong.
Alan the programmer, who is staring at your fish tank says in mild irritation, “It depends on the fish. I disagree with Ballard—most people are conditioned to help each other in times of need, not turn on each other.”
You say, “I’d like to believe that, Alan, because I am so dismayed by the disintegration of the society in High-Rise—how fast it escalates, how believable it is. With the high density of this condominium complex, with so many potentially undocumented foreigners—it would be so easy for us to disappear, despite the CCTVs.”
“But we’re not in the U.K, and I think we are more civil in Malaysia,” argues Siti Rohaya as she munches on the spicy muruku that you have poured into flat dishes set in the middle of your coffee table, the books that used to be stacked haphazardly on it now quietly shuffled off into bookshelves.
(Every fortnight the group enjoys the crispy snacks in your living room and wind up discussing world and national politics more than the Ballardian chapter assigned for, and readings. Malaysia is such a Ballardian state, you would think, and everyone would discuss, with earnest regularity at every meeting.)
“Oh, come off it, Siti. We’re definitely not that civil—we have all seen the uglier manifestations of mob mentality in Malaysia. More than once, in history. That is why we have all of these regulations,” said Muthu, an obvious conservative. Probably an M.I.C. man—one could almost tell these things from the pleat in his pants and the way he wore his belt. You laugh out loud at the silly thought and shake your head at enquiring smiles.
“Those regulations are there to protect the government, not the people,” Alan asserts, his eyebrows burrowed as he glowers at Muthu. Alan’s one of the newer guard—a PKR man, who has gone for every Bersih rally since they started to protest the government in power.
“And yet, we’ve had awfully tame rallies—and the government has not oppressed those people. At least, not by much,” observed Ranjini, her tone half-cynical, half-contemplative.
“I’m happy our rallies are relatively civilized things, it gives me hope for the country as a whole, despite the terrifying news on a daily basis, despite the equally terrifying indifference of our police force when it comes to domestic crimes and violence against women,” you now add, even as you stand up to grab a new packet of muruku to replenish the fast emptying crystal bowl. A good muruku brand, you muse to yourself.
“You’re such a pessimistic optimist, Lila,” Ranjini laughs, but adds, “I think I like that about you.”
You squirm in embarrassment at the praise—knowing that they do not know how paranoid you’ve been over the past few weeks or how these discussions serve as your own private and personal methods of exorcism. What was even better was that the shadows had stopped coalescing in your bedroom after midnight. Silence loomed above your head like a crime scene vacated.
They do not know why you’ve agreed to host strangers in your living room, how you’ve imagined them as a band of protectors, guarding you against the menace of the dripping of viscous red liquid, ever-reverberating in your ears even in its absence. Can one grow deaf from the memory of a sound, you wonder. Can one grow deaf from the razing of nails across the chalkboard of one’s ceiling?
You remember the email you read three weeks before the book club started. From a man who says he lives in that gristly unit, that nightmare unit. A civil engineer and an installation artist. You remember the sounds of nails dropping. But you also remember the sounds of screams. You wonder what manner of installation he is building upstairs and shudder that he knows a book club is being held. Fortunately, you tell yourself, he does not know where the book club is physically located. You do not answer the email. You try to ignore the contents of it being read out loud to you by your mind, punctuated by the syncopated rhythm of liquid drips. Drip, drip, drip.
Every Wednesday evening—the conversations grow more animated.
At the end of High-Rise, everyone agrees they should tackle Crash next.
After five months have passed you have all started to slip confidences in your text messages. You’ve had lunch with Ranjini twice, and almost contemplate a romance with Alan—who is so attractive in all of his earnest political zeal. You’re not entirely a liberal but you’ve always had a partial attraction, partial irritation for liberal boys. There is almost a disarming innocence about them.
The conversations about Crash tend to rather inevitably become conversations about Cronenberg that segue into Malaysian folk horror—how so many of those traditional entities are intrinsically body horror entities. You make digressions from Ballard to various newer works published by Fixi Novo authors. After the book club has exhausted its capacity for being salty about Malaysian literary fiction and manifestations of body horror in the works of the younger guard, you return to Ballard and decide to revisit Crash in an exploration of body horror as textual installation. The discussion makes you remember your imaginings of what happens above your head, although there has been silence for many weeks now. No nails, no footsteps. Only a vast, breathing void that ekes its way into your dreams.
You are all up to your necks in a discussion about internal organs and literary gag reflexes one Wednesday evening in August when the doorbell rings.
“Oh, that must be Mikhail,” Siti Rohaya says in a diffident voice.
“Mikhail?” you query, wondering why the name sounds so familiar.
“Yes, he’s my colleague at work, another civil engineer,” she answers.
Oh no. Your breathing grows shallow as presentiment looms like the shadow of a persistent stalker.
“I told him about this great book club of ours and how well we all get along. He said he tried to join when he first started but never got a response. He’s a great fan of Ballard. Installation artist too. Brilliant man—seems to intimately understand body horror. Anyway, you should probably answer the door since you’re the host and all.”
Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.
In your head you can hear—no, feel—the dropping of nails. One, by one.
You get up with heavy limbs, half-protesting, “But we’re almost done for the day,” you say.
“Oh do go and open the door, Lila. It will be fine. He’s very handsome you know. And your upstairs neighbour!” Siti Rohaya gives you a suggestive, match-making look.
There is nothing literary about your current gag-reflex, you think as you move towards the door. You open it.
A Eurasian man waits outside the grille door, his shoulder-length hair parted in the middle, falling into elegant waves around his oval face. He wears thick glasses in the popular fashion, and his dressing is all equatorial sartorial elegance. In one hand he holds a dog-eared copy of Ballard, in another, a large packet of deep-fried tapioca chips.
“Hello,” he says, a smile that is all charm and teeth. The teeth are sharp. You try not to notice the hair growing out of his ears, the vulpine cast of his triangular face, the way his eyes seem to focus and lose focus in rapid succession. Almost like a predator catching sight of his prey. Almost like a predator, toying with his prey.
“I’m awfully sorry to gate-crash like this but I was really excited when I heard that you’re my downstairs neighbour. And Ballard is one of my great passions in life. So much of my life’s work is inspired by him. I do hope I’m not too late for today’s discussion. Siti says you’ve all been talking about Cronenberg, body horror, and cannibalism. May I come in?”
His tones are as elegant as his looks, and his vowels effortlessly roll off his tongue in the kind of offhand accent that tells you he’s been educated in the U.K. You remember the muffled screams, the jack-hammering, the purposeful drilling that happens at 3am.
You smile politely into his eyes and think to yourself that he has a lovely smile but also that he has the purposeful dark brown eyes of a dedicated serial killer.
No way in hell I am going to let him in. No way in hell.
You take a deep breath and say, “We’re almost ended for today, Mikhail. I’m sorry, but perhaps you’d like to join us some other week?”
His eyes upon yours narrow, and he nods. “Perhaps another day then,” he says, slanting you a knowing smile. He turns on his heel and walks away, affront registering on his broad shoulders.
You return with heavy steps towards your little book club to tell them that there will be no more meetings in your home. You tell them that this little company must disband because there’s been a sudden emergency. You inject frost into your words, frost unnatural in these equatorial nights. After the last cold, and disappointed person leaves your home, you rush into your bedroom to throw clothes into a bag. You place a quick phone call to your sister, whom you have not seen since a stiff dinner six months ago.
You move back to your family home in Klang that night. You quickly draft advertisements to let out your apartment for rent. You refuse all offers by single ladies, and let your home out to a group of male university students.
One morning, you take the day off to lodge a report at the police station. You know what they will do. They will take your statement, cite that you have a lack of evidence, that perhaps this is the working of an over-active imagination. They will promise to investigate.
They will not.
You weigh the pros and cons but then you go down to the police station anyway. You look into the eyes of the police inspector and you begin to narrate every drip, every nail drop, every sound, every time you called security and were ignored. You give him the name of your neighbour and describe his appearance in detail. You leave out certain details like the fact that he has the teeth of a predator, yellowed and sharp. You leave out the vulpine cast on his face and the nightly condensing of shadows into vulpine shapes. The police inspector takes a look at your face, and you can see he’s made a judgement call. He picks up his android phone and barks instructions to his deputies.
Nothing happens in the weeks and months after that apart from your longer work-commute, and your incessant squabbles with your sister as you try to co-exist in the large single-story home your parents left you both.
One day, Siti Rohaya calls you up while you are frying banana fritters in a large wok, “I miss you, Lila. I miss our book-club. It was so special, so magical. We felt so right together. And then you moved away, and left us. It was so strange. Was it Mikhail? Did you know? I am so sorry for inviting him over that night. I am so sorry, Lila.”
Her voice cracks as she speaks. She has been crying. Your sensitive ears can make out that much.
“Know what?” you ask quietly, even as your breathing catches in your throat, even as at the corner of your eye you see the shadows coalescing into the shape of a giant fox. How do you kill a supernatural fox? you ask yourself. How do you survive, how do you become a final girl? As Siti Rohaya speaks, you are already reaching for the drawer where you’ve kept a large parang for self-defence. You’ve been working out, and you’ve been taking self-defence lessons in preparation for today. How do you catch a fox in your wok? You wonder.
“That he was a convicted murderer in London who somehow escaped, that he had a human smuggling ring running in Malaysia. In his apartment. The police came to our office to pick him up just now. It should be in the papers by tomorrow. Did you know, Lila? Did you?”
You put down the phone, recently-sharpened parang in hand.