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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
During the previous weeks Steele’s behaviour had become frightening. The deliberately mindless assaults on anyone found alone or unprotected, the infantile smearing of blood on the walls of empty apartments — all these Laing watched uneasily.
Dressing up corpses and 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.
Three doors along, he entered an abandoned apartment. The rooms were empty, the 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.
Laing pushed back the bedroom door. A red-haired 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.
“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.” 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?
So Laing took Eleanor Powell and her portable television set back to his apartment. He 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.