We write first in blood and tears, then go over in ink.

Story_The Spire

Do you ever tire of the crowds? What would it be like to live 150 levels above the commonfolk’s plane of existence? This story explores such a life…

All over the world, Man’s pride has driven him to build upwards, creating taller and taller buildings. But, sometimes, it is simply unwise to populate the upper reaches of the buildings, and these have come to be disparaged as the ‘vanity’ tiers.

One building magnate, Mr Iego, created the tallest office complex in his country and named it ‘Soaring Heights’. It was 150 storeys altogether, but in reality, only 140 storeys were useful. The upper levels were just a pyramid of skeletal steel beams tapering upwards to a metal spire at its highest point. The media sneered at Soaring Heights. Mr Iego was so stung by their criticisms that he decided to create an office on the 149th level of The Spire. This office in the clouds will be staffed by one employee.

Subsequently, many people were interviewed for the post. But nobody wanted the job. Finally, a Mr Lim, Norman, was hired.

“Are you any good on ships, Norman?” the interviewer asked.

Norman answered that he would think he was, although he wasn’t very sure.

“Things would sway about on the 149th floor, you see, what with the wind reaching 50 kph. But it’s nothing to worry about,” the interviewer said in a hearty tone. “And are you afraid of heights, Norman?”

Again, Norman said that he wasn’t sure, but he could always stay away from the edge.

“Very sensible!” the interviewer beamed. “The Spire has to be kept light, so we wouldn’t be giving you walls. But, not to worry, wooden slats will keep you as snug as a bug.”

“And you wouldn’t have to work at a computer, or take phone calls, because we will not be laying cables at that height. And the hours are very good—you wouldn’t have to do shift work at all. What a good deal, right?”

On his first day of work, Norman took a lift to the 140th floor. Then he climbed a few flights of stone steps to the 145th floor. Thereafter, he climbed an iron ladder that was set in the centre of The Spire. Up, up, he went, using both hands to grip the ladder rungs. He had to hold his briefcase between his teeth, because he could not carry it and climb at the same time.

He mumbled a note to himself that he should use a backpack the next day.

Norman finally reached his office on the 149th level. It was a single room with glass-less windows. The walls were made of some sort of flexible plasterboard planks. And the planks rattled deafeningly throughout the day. The wind gusted throughout the little room.

Norman made another mental note—he should wear a jacket the next day.

His office was a wooden desk screwed firmly to the floorboard. But his chair was not. So, Norman had to lock his legs around the table legs so that his chair would not move around.

His office behaved exactly like the deck of a ship. It swayed in the wind. It shuddered. It bucked. Norman had a hard time just keeping upright, never mind doing paperwork.

Norman only had one job. He had to write one report every day. The report would detail what happened on the 149th level of Soaring Heights that day.

“19th March, 2018…” Norman wrote. He stopped and chewed his pencil. His paper flapped madly in the wind like a trapped bird.

“It is very windy. Tomorrow I will bring a backpack, a jacket, a hammer and some nails (to fasten my chair to the floor) and a lot of blue tack (so I can stick the paper to the desk). End of report. Signed by Norman Lim.”

Norman checked his spelling and wondered if he should copy out his report neatly on a fresh sheet of paper. He looked at his watch. He had five more hours to the end of his shift.

At lunchtime, Norman took out his squashed sandwich which he had wisely prepared at home. He congratulated himself that he would not have to jostle with the lunchtime crowd. At 6pm, Norman packed away the pencil and paper pad into his desk drawer and locked it. He wedged the chair firmly around the desk legs and looked around the bare room. There was nothing else for him to do.

Norman climbed down the ladder, then the stone stairs and finally took the lift to the ground level. He felt unsteady on his feet when he finally got onto the street.

Getting to and from his office was by far the most difficult part of Norman’s job. One day, a screw on the iron ladder came loose. Norman tried to climb down but the ladder rattled alarmingly when he did so. Storm clouds had also gathered and darkness descended rapidly.

He squatted at the top of the ladder, contemplating what he should do next. He doubted that any of the workers in the building knew of his existence. Perhaps he would die here. Perhaps his corpse would be discovered at the next payday when he failed to collect his cheque.

When it was almost midnight and Norman’s teeth were rattling inside his head from the cold, he heard a voice hollering from the 145th floor. “Hello! Is anybody up there?”

It was the security guard! Norman tried to yell, but his voice came out as a hoarse croak. His throat was parched. But the security guard heard him. Norman informed him about the loose ladder. “Hmm, hmm,” the guard said, thinking aloud. “Let me get the engineer.”

It turned out that Norman’s mother had called the maintenance office, because his dinner was getting cold, and Norman had never, ever, stayed out late on a working day. The engineer came with a long rope and a torch. He threw the rope up at Norman. Norman tied it around his waist and anchored the rope to his stout desk leg. He descended the ladder, but halfway down, the ladder’s remaining screw came off with a Sproing! and the ladder started falling.

“Jump!” Both the engineer and the guard yelled. Norman jumped. All three men got off The Spire gratefully. “You wouldn’t ever catch me up there again,” the guard said fervently.

The engineer added, “We never designed The Spire for human occupation. I don’t think Mr Norman will have to go up there again after tonight.”

However, when Norman reported for work the next day, he was told that the ladder had been repaired and, moreover, there was now a telephone on his desk. The CEO was adamant that The Spire be manned, so that he could tell the media that his building was meaningfully occupied.

Other than the ladder mishap, Norman’s days passed quietly. He liked it that way. Norman did not need people’s company. Some time later, Mama Lim passed away. After that, Norman felt it was not necessary to make the long trek down The Spire and the elevator just to go back to an empty house. So, he brought an electric pot, a sleeping bag and some supplies to Soaring Heights.

Thereafter, he would work till 6pm when dusk set in, then he would climb down to the walled 140th floor where he would wash up, cook a simple dinner for himself, and climb into his sleeping bag. Once a week, he brought all his reports down to Mr Sorin’s secretary’s office and bought fresh supplies.

One day, his silent phone suddenly rang. Norman was startled. “Is this Mr… ah, Lim Norman? I called to inform you that your position has been closed. Please submit your final report and gather all your belongings.”

Norman finally found his voice and asked if he was being replaced by a more capable worker.

“No. Soaring Heights is scheduled for demolition. They’re going to tear it down and make a taller building in its place.”

Norman found new work as a newspaper agent, then as an outdoor car park valet. But he missed his bolted-down desk and the howling wind that fought with him for his paper reports. Once in a while, he watched the nearby construction site as the new building slowly took shape.

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