The Man Upstairs. A play for radio.

SFX:  RHYTHMIC TRUDGING OF MANY BOOTED FEET ON A CREAKING STAIRCASE, BECOMING IRREGULAR AT TIMES AS IF HEAVY WEIGHTS WERE BEING MANHANDLED WITH DIFFICULTY IN A CONFINED SPACE. A DOOR SLAMS, INSTANTLY REDUCING THE NOISE, WHICH CONTINUES UNDER…

APPROACHING FOOTSTEPS, THEN A DEEP SIGH FOLLOWED BY THE CLACKING OF KEYS ON A COMPUTER KEYBOARD.

MVO 1(WARREN):

You see, to start with it all looked quite normal. I know you don’t like the word ‘normal’, Alex, because according to you there’s no such thing – but you’d have to admit that moving stuff into an apartment is standard behaviour for a new occupant, and I had no reason to be curious about the person who had come to live on the top floor of our block at first. It was only when the moving in seemed to be taking an unusually long time that I started to take an interest.

SFX: MOVEMENT ON THE STAIRCASE OUTSIDE, BRIEFLY UP AND UNDER…

WARREN (CONTD.)

The furniture came first. Nothing too exciting: a bed, of course – tables and chairs, a cabinet and a few odd bits – I heard them all being lugged past my door and up ten or so flights to the top of the building.

SFX:            MORE DISTURBANCE OUTSIDE – FEET SLIPPING ON STAIRS. A HEAVY OBJECT FALLS.

WARREN (CONTD.)

The soundproofing isn’t great in our block. Everything echoes on the wood flooring and the stairs all creak. This is not the kind of place that would withstand even a mild earth-tremor, and more than one booted person on the stairs at a time can produce a sound like a thunder storm.

SFX:            FOOTSTEPS CLATTERING DOWNSTAIRS. HEAVY VIBRATIONS. SOUNDS OF ACTIVITY CONTINUE UNDER…

WARREN (CONTD):

You know me, Alex, I don’t like to pry – but after the second day of this I was getting restless. When there’s this much activity going on outside your door it’s not unreasonable to take a look and I started leaving my door open so at least whoever was responsible for the upheaval would know there was somebody else in the building to consider. I even showed myself in the doorway, to make the point that all this racket was disturbing the peace.

Well, what I saw worried me a lot. Not only was there a ridiculous amount of stuff going up those stairs to the top of a building no one would describe as strong, but some of it looked seriously heavy. You wouldn’t flinch at the sight of a roll of carpet being manhandled – but iron girders, crates of nuts and bolts, then a concrete mixer, I found unnerving. You probably remember my fear – some would say irrational fear – of living on upper stories. That’s because I don’t like the idea of being perched on top of other people who, for all I know, might remove walls or take other liberties with the structure holding me up. I prefer to live at ground level for just that reason. Diagnosable or not, that’s the way I am.

SFX:            DISTANT HAMMERING – STEEL ON STEEL.

WARREN (CONTD.)

All I have ever required of a living space is that it should be secure, proof against the elements and rigid enough to house the delicate things I like to keep around me – my sound system, computer, things like that. And you remember the model ships I used to make at school that no one was allowed near because they were so fragile? That’s become a big thing with me. A historic galleon or man o’ war will take me a year with every detail accurate down to the last spar and timber. I even soak the rigging in a special solution so it hangs right. You might call that obsessive, but it takes my mind off things – by which I mean the extraordinary loneliness of city dwelling, especially in a fairly out-of-the-way part of town where all you see from the windows are cars speeding hither and yon. It’s rare to see anyone on foot anymore, have you noticed that? I like to see people around – it gives me a feeling of belonging – but this area is all faceless buildings, traffic and concrete, and doesn’t lend itself walking about. So I make model ships and imagine myself sailing away on them, OK? I’ve been told I could sell them for a fortune but I like having them around, so they gather dust in the apartment and I tiptoe around them.

You remember at boarding school when I wouldn’t join in pillow fights and stuff and everyone thought I was frightened of getting hurt or couldn’t handle being caught and punished? It wasn’t that. I just didn’t like chaos and still don’t. I also resented being penalised along with everyone else for stuff I didn’t want to do anyway. That’s how I feel about my new upstairs neighbour who sounds as if he’s risking the stability of the whole building with whatever horrific alterations he’s making up there. I need order – security. I don’t like vibration or thumping noises in the night. Tell me if that’s unreasonable.

Yours ever,

Warren.

SFX:            SCREECH OF A CIRCULAR SAW ON METAL, WITH HAMMERING. FADES…

FADE UP. MUFFLED SOUNDS OF EFFORT BEYOND A DOOR, GRUNTS OF PEOPLE HAULING HEAVY OBJECTS.

WARREN:

Well, Alex, I knew I could rely on an honest response from you. It’s not the first time I’ve been called an anal retentive (never quite understood that phrase) but tell me this: what is it about wanting order and peace that antagonises people so? It’s no threat. I don’t get it. Let me set the record straight on one point, though: I’m not scared of confrontation. I don’t go looking for it – I happen to think harmony is better than conflict – but that doesn’t make me withdrawn or insular, as you seem to suggest. I went upstairs yesterday as it happens, to hold out the hand of friendship, welcome the new occupant to the building and so on – and maybe set my mind at rest about what he’s doing up there.

SFX: SLOW FOOTSTEPS TRUDGING UPSTAIRS. SCREECH OF A CIRCULAR SAW AND HAMMERING, GROWING LOUDER AS THE CLIMBER REACHES THE SOURCE.

WARREN (CONTD.)

What did I find? A steel door that looks like something out of a bank vault with a reinforced frame, studs and some kind of electronic lock. I could hear work going on inside – hammering and a tooth-jangling screech like a circular saw on metal.

SFX:            REPEATED THUMPING OF A HAND AGAINST A HARD SURFACE. SAWING AND HAMMERING PAUSES FOR A BEAT, THEN RESUMES.

WARREN (CONTD.)

There was a brief pause when I thumped on the door so I thought they must have heard me, but then the noise started up again and no one opened up. When I came downstairs I heard several alarming cracking sounds like joists settling under stress. I also noticed the doors in my apartment are sticking, which I am sure is due to downward pressure from overhead.

I am not happy sleeping under my own roof. How do you think that feels?

Yours,

Warren.

SFX:            DEEP, CRACKING SOUNDS OF TIMBER UNDER STRESS. THE CIRCULAR SAW IS HEARD AGAIN, DISTANTLY, MINGLED WITH THE SUSSURATION OF TRAFFIC AND A PASSING SIREN. FADES.

FADE UP.

WARREN:

More developments, Alex. Not being one to lie down under the kind of torment I’m being subjected to I’ve decided to take action. The first obvious step was to get a look inside that top apartment and see if any building regulations are being violated because if they are I can get the authorities involved.

The building across the street has a flat roof on roughly the same level as the top of our block, so I reckoned that was the place to start. I went over and had a word with the caretaker – told him I was a photographer doing shots of the city – and he showed me up to the roof.

SFX:            CITY AMBIENCE. DISTANT. CONTINUES UNDER…

WARREN (CONTD.)

I have a long lens which I fitted to my camera, partly to look convincing for the caretaker’s benefit but mainly because it acts as a telescope and gave me a chance of getting incriminating evidence.

I picked out the windows of the top apartment, isolated one of them with my 500 mm lens – and believe me you can see right into somebody’s ear at that range – and while I was focusing, a face was suddenly framed close up in my viewfinder looking right back at me.

The shock made me jump and I lost my framing for a moment so I only had a snatched impression of a pale, startled face. When I found the window again the face was gone and a steel blind was rolling down. The whole apartment was sealed tight like a fortress. I have to know what’s going on in there.

More when I have something to report,

Warren.

 

SFX:            CITY SOUNDS FADE.

FADE UP, CLACKING OF KEYS ON A KEYBOARD.

WARREN:

Thank you Alex, but I do have a life of my own and I get out as much as anyone else. There is something very suspicious going on above me and I do not accept that a “normal” person would ignore it. That’s rich coming from you, anyway. What’s this word “normal” doing in your vocabulary? I’m telling you there’s a problem, and a little sympathy or even guidance would be appreciated.

The door to my apartment now only opens when I lean on it hard or pull with all my strength, depending on whether I’m coming in or out, and the bottom corner is wearing a groove in the floorboards. Several large cracks have appeared in my ceiling and a chunk of plaster fell out last night taking a spar off one of my ships, which will take weeks to restore.

SFX:            FADE UP SOUNDS OF POWER TOOLS AND HEAVY OBJECTS SHIFTING FROM HIGH ABOVE.

WARREN (CONTD.)

I can still hear hammering and drilling from up top whenever I stop to listen and my nerves as well as my patience are close to the limit. I’ve tried ringing the landlord several times but all I get is a recorded message and so far no one has bothered to return my calls, which must mean either there’s no one there or no one cares.

I went up with the intention of talking to some of the people who live in the other apartments above mine because it occurred to me they must all be suffering progressively worse than I am the higher you go, but couldn’t raise a reply from any of them. It seems implausible that they should all have chosen the same time to be away. It could be coincidence I suppose or maybe they’ve cleared out in fear of their lives. If so I sympathise. I would like to do the same, but it’s not that easy to find alternative accommodation with prices rocketing the way they are. For the moment I’m stuck in a place that’s slowly disintegrating around my ears, at the mercy of some lunatic who won’t show his face. What would you do?

Another thing. Come to think of it I haven’t seen anyone going up or down the stairs since the original burst of activity when all that stuff was being carried up. There was a gang of men doing the heavy work but thinking back not a single face sticks in mind – just labouring figures in scruffy grey or blue overalls. Maybe one of them was the new occupant, maybe not: I have no way of knowing.

Warren.

SFX:            RHYTHMIC METALLIC HAMMERING. FADES.

FADE UP. DEEP, REVERBERATING THUMPS AND CLOSE UP SOUND OF PLASTER DUST GUSHING ON SURFACES.

WARREN (AGGITATED):

This is too much. It’s four o’clock in the morning and I’ve just heard a series of thumps that reverberated down the walls and must have rocked the place to its foundations. My ceiling is definitely bowing downwards forcing the cracks open and there is a scatter of debris descending on the desk as I write this.

SFX:            SCREECHING SAW, CLANKING AND SHIFTING FROM ABOVE.

WARREN (CONTD.)

The circular saw is screeching again and there’s a noise like heavy chains being hauled over a pulley from somewhere up aloft. Is this what I pay taxes for? There are supposed to be regulations protecting us against things like this but I don’t see any sign of a controlling authority. Those who legislate for us are at our doors fast enough with their smart suits and ready smiles when they want us to vote for them but where are they when they could really make a difference? You tell me.

I’ve spent my whole life believing in some kind of universal benevolence that entitles us to feel secure. I don’t mean you shouldn’t look after yourself – only that no one else should suffer in the process. Try to avoid harming other people and no harm will come to you.

I’ve never articulated this idea before and now I have it sounds naïve. Obviously my faith in the order of things was a luxury – an illusion I used to comfort myself – and I’m starting to wonder if there is one rule for a select few and another for the rest of us. If this is the case, who decides whether you’re one of them or one of us? What gives anyone the right to put the interests of one person above the interests of another?

Someone must have authorised what’s going on at the top of the building, and whoever that was didn’t think to consult me. Am I so insignificant that anyone with influence can do as they like regardless of how it may affect my safety? The man at the top is obviously making himself comfortable in his own way with no thought for anyone underneath. Is some minion going to come to my door in due course and try to persuade me this reckless behaviour is for the greater good of everyone else in the block – or have I simply been overlooked, as so often in the past? In my present frame of mind I haven’t the confidence to assert myself. It’s easy to feel defeated when people you can’t reach are treating you as though you had never existed.

I should have started kicking up a fuss as soon as this lunacy started, but who could have guessed it was going to put the whole structure in jeopardy? Right now I don’t feel I can spend the night here – what’s left of it. There’s a patina of dust over my bed, and on every other surface in the apartment. No – that’s it.

SFX:            RELENTLESS METALLIC HAMMERING MIXED WITH CLOSER SOUNDS OF CREAKING WOODWORK, BRIEFLY UNDER, AND

FADE UP, CREAKING TIMBERS RESOLVE TO OMINOUS CRACKING SOUNDS, BECOMING MORE INTENSE. PATTER OF DUST AND DEBRIS ON SURFACES. CONTINUING UNDER…

WARREN:

Now I’ve got a real problem. Since my last entry only a few minutes ago I’ve had to sit down and collect my thoughts. It would be easy to panic, but instead I’m keeping a level head and writing all this down for when the time comes to take legal action, in spite of having to clear plaster fragments from the page every few seconds.

I can’t get out. The door only opened a crack before getting wedged against the floor and I can see what’s happened: it was supporting the lintel when it was closed but I’ve taken away the support by trying to open it and now I can’t pull it wide enough to get out – or close it again, because the lintel is pressing down. I’ve got external bars on all the windows so there’s no escape that way, which is ironic, because they’re supposed to keep people out, not in. Tried phoning the emergency services but there was no answer and now the line’s gone dead. Cursing my bad judgement for not evacuating the building at the first sign of structural failure.

All I can do now is hope my nerve and the building holds up long enough for someone to come along and get me out, but the street outside is dark and the occasional passing headlights look as remote to me as shooting stars. My plan at the moment is to smash a window as soon as it gets light and hope someone is close enough to hear me shouting for help. The ceiling above my bed is

SFX:            SOUNDS OF WORK HAVE BEEN GRADUALLY INCREASING AND NOW CUT TO

SILENCE.

FADE UP. CITY AMBIENCE IN A LIVELY PART OF TOWN. TRAFFIC MINGLED WITH VOICES. CLACK OF COMPUTER KEYS CLOSE UP.

MVO 2 (ALEX):

Haven’t heard from you for a while, Warren, so I’m guessing your latest problems have sorted themselves out, one way or another – as they always will if you take life at a steady pace and practice deep breathing exercises. I’ve always been fascinated by your capacity for over-reaction. It is by far your most endearing characteristic, and the entertainment value in trying to predict what you would be agonising about next was the only reason anyone put up with your self-absorbed whining and worrying at school. I can reveal now that your habit of closeting yourself with those model ships for hours on end earned you the nickname, ‘The Cabin Boy’, and was the reason you were always getting left out of things. Face it, you weren’t the most sociable sole, and I imagine that’s still the case. I don’t mean to be unkind, but if we can’t speak openly after knowing each other this long, it’s a poor thing. A harsh truth is sometimes helpful, so I hope you can take it in the intended spirit.

Life has its set-backs for everyone. Without wishing to trivialise whatever discomfort you may have been suffering, it’s time someone pointed out that you have not been uniquely singled out for persecution by cruel fate. We’ve all lived in sub-standard apartments at one time or another. We all have problems, but how typical of you to be so absorbed in your own that you didn’t notice – or at least, think to comment on – a genuine human tragedy being played out in your own part of town, very close to where you live to judge from the address.

If Schadenfruede is what it takes to lift your spirits, let me cheer you up with news of what happened to Amos Klein, a man I deeply admire, justly venerated by a whole generation. Here is someone who has made real improvements. The impact he’s had on all our lives could hardly be overstated, all the more impressive now we know something of the anguish he goes through to function normally. For all his achievements, Amos Klein emerges as a lonely, frightened man for whom everyday life is torture. He has made a vast fortune but seems never to have enjoyed the luxuries that went with it because his sole preoccupation has been surviving from day to day. All he ever wanted to do with his money was insulate himself. Not much comfort in that. From all accounts, he doesn’t even have someone like me to write to. I wish he had. If I can find time for reading your complaints about dust on your galleons I could certainly have responded to him.

I want to quote you an article which explains why this sad man is on my mind at the moment, in case you missed it. It’s one of those high drama headlines but the story behind it touched a nerve when I read it, and I hope you will understand why.

BILLIONAIRE RECLUSE SURVIVES FREAK BUILDING COLLAPSE.

 The article goes on…

 Electronics billionaire Amos Klein miraculously walked unscathed from the wreckage of his penthouse home early this morning following the collapse of the entire apartment block.

Klein, who had been living alone in his lofty hideaway, is thought to be the only victim of the disaster, all the apartments below penthouse level having been vacated during extensive building work on the top storey. Rescue workers described his escape from death as a miracle. 

Early reports suggest Mr. Klein’s extensive modifications to the penthouse added too much extra weight which the structure was not designed to stand and caused the building to collapse in upon itself, burying its own foundations beneath hundreds of tons of concrete, iron and sheet steel. An eye-witness  said it was as if ‘a giant, invisible hand came down and simply squashed the whole building into the ground’.

 Then there’s a sub-head, and this is what really made me want to reach out to him…             

Tormented by demons…

Mr. Klein, whose retreat from public life began some years ago, is described by a former employee as a man increasingly tortured by morbid fears. ‘He is terrified of society, people, everything around him. He sees the world as violent and murderous, and many years ago stopped going out without the protection of others. He felt threatened in any public place, convinced that every crowd was cover for someone who would kill him given the slightest opportunity. Eventually, when his fear of any kind of company became acute, he stopped going out at all. He is only comfortable way above street level in remote parts of town, and the penthouse apartment he occupied most recently was a steel-lined fortress, as close to being sealed off from the world as you can get. The only way to explain it is to say he is tormented by demons, and isolation behind armour-plated doors is the only way he can cope with them.’

You see, Warren? We all have to struggle with something, even the most prominent amongst us. If someone with all Amos Klein’s advantages – not to say genius – can’t handle life down on our level, none if us should complain too much. Just getting through the day is good enough. Try to put yourself in the position of someone with so much to offer, yet so scared of people that taking part in everyday life is a near impossibility.

Don’t feel I’m unsympathetic. I just wanted to put your worries in perspective. I’ll be happy to respond to your next chapter of anxieties when you’ve taken all this in.

Yours,

Alex.

SFX:            LIVELY CITY AMBIENCE FADES.

FADE UP. BUILDING SITE AMBIENCE, BULLDOZER ENGINES. UNDER TO…

KEYBOARD CLACKING.

ALEX:

Warren, My last letter was returned unopened. Are you sulking? Snap out of it, we go back a long way together and if you can’t take honest criticism it’s time you grew up. My judgement may have sounded harsh at times, but I speak my mind and I thought that was what you valued in our relationship. I can’t believe you’re that insecure – but if so, carry on with your toy boats and get in touch when you’re feeling better.

Alex.

 

SFX:            BUILDING SITE AMBIENCE AND BULLDOZERS BRIEFLY UP AND OUT.