The opening of Metronome, the debut novel by Tom Watson, published by Bloomsbury in hardback, ebook and audio on 31 March 2022
Aina stands at the sink, drying the dishes from lunch. It is a bright day, warm for March, and shadows of cloud dapple the headland. The back door is open. On the step, Whitney’s boots are thick with mud; he has been up in the field this morning, but for the last hour he has been clanging about in his studio. There is a sculpture he is hoping to finish, a series of figurines composed of things that have washed up on the beach through the years.
She inhales slowly and the clanging halts. The undulation of the waves becomes a soft unhurried rush, and the lull between each grows longer. When she looks up, she sees a large cloud passing over the croft, blocking out the sun.
Whitney whispers to her from outside. ‘Aina. Come quick.’
From the back door, she sees him standing by the outhouse, slowly wiping his hands on a grease-ridden cloth. He is looking up the path, towards the gate. Something moves. She did not see it before: a wobbling tangle of fleece with dried clumps of green stuck to its rear.
‘What the Jesus is that?’ she says.
‘A sheep is what it is.’
‘I can see that.’
The sheep stares at her and chews, moving its mouth slowly from side to side.
‘Distract it,’ says Whitney. ‘I’ll get the gate.’
She waves her arms and approaches. The sheep stops chewing. The stringy end of a carrot droops from its mouth. She takes another step, and the sheep lopes off down the side of the croft.
While Whitney goes to secure the gate, she hurries inside, rummaging in the cupboard for the speargun. When she steps back into the garden, the sun is shining once more.
He stops short when he sees her.
‘You can’t,’ he says.
She slides the harpoon down the barrel and twists it into place. ‘Can’t what?’
‘You can’t shoot it.’
She thinks he must be joking, but he moves to intercept her.
‘It might belong to someone,’ he says.
She looks from the beach to the headland and up across the moor. ‘And who might that be?’
She pulls the stock tight to her ribs and lines up a shot over Whitney’s shoulder. ‘It’s only a sheep,’ she says.
He steps forward, palms outstretched, fingers splayed. The wind whips strands of his greying hair about his face.
‘Think about it, Aina.’
‘I am thinking.’ She takes a step towards him. ‘I’m thinking roast mutton with mint and potatoes. Barley broth. Mutton with oatcakes.’
Her words do not seem to have any effect.
‘Think long term,’ he says.
She stops. ‘Long term? Parole’s in a week, what does it matter?’
‘For whoever comes next. The garden could use some manure.’
She looks about at the detritus of old projects and innovations; his failed attempts to make things grow.
‘Manure?’ she says.
‘It’s a more sustainable approach.’
‘And what do you suppose it’ll eat?’
‘Gorse. Heather. Grass if need be. Come on, where’s the harm?’ He clasps his hands together and when he smiles he looks just like Maxime.
‘I suppose it is only a week.’
‘Until the Warden comes.’
‘Then it’s someone else’s problem …’
She thinks for a moment and lowers the gun. ‘You’re feeding it. You’re cleaning it. That’s on you.’
‘Of course,’ he says.
She crouches beside the animal, placing her hand on its heaving flank. The sun glints off the hard sea. ‘Where do you think it came from?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘Maybe it swam.’
‘Maybe,’ she says, unconvinced. ‘Do sheep swim?’
The front door is so warped that it takes all of Aina’s strength to open. Both hands on the handle, she hears the jamb crack and something gives. She heaves, stumbles backwards, and the door swings in, rebounding off the wall. Everything beyond is a rectangle of white. Her eyes adjust. The corrosive sea air has left the door faded, blue paint peeling. In the distance, down on the beach, the waves break calmly in thin, orderly strips. The wind, the very reason she prefers the door closed, is barely a breeze, and the croft needs airing. She wedges the door open, returns to the kitchen and sips a cup of water. She will knock up some plaster for the dented wall in a minute; it shouldn’t take long.
The layout of the croft is simple. Three rooms downstairs: a bathroom, a kitchen and a small living room that they call ‘the nook’. Off the kitchen is a larder, where she keeps a small store of supplies – scratchings, really. A thinning selection of wares sit neatly on upcycled shelves. Pickles, a tub of oats and a prized tin of tuna, which she has set aside as a welcome gift for whoever is sent next to Long Sky Croft. In the floor of the larder, there is a trapdoor which leads downstairs to a cellar. A second flight of stairs leads up, via a tall cupboard door in the kitchen, to a long narrow attic with bare floorboards and two single beds.
They spend most of their time in the kitchen, since it is the easiest of the rooms to heat. And though the rooms are compact and few in number, they have taken her all afternoon to clean. She has gone top to bottom, beating curtains, dusting sills, sweeping the stairs and the brickwork behind the fire. She has mopped the flagstones, polished the sinks and the taps, and, in an attempt to get a shine out of things that do not ordinarily shine, she has worn the cloth so thin that it could pass for a veil.
It is only fair that they leave the croft in a manageable state. Whitney is right on that front.
Her hands are raw from scrubbing. Knuckles bruised. Even the pill clock gleams. Its casing, some kind of composite, resistant to heat, is criss-crossed with scratches from their attempts to force it open. Years of pointless endeavour, blunting claw hammers as they excavated parts of the cellar, trying to work out the exact dimensions of the clock. All without success. They will leave not knowing how deep it sits within the croft’s foundations, or for how long it might keep releasing pills, every eight hours on the hour: 6 a.m., 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Their tether. Their leash. A constant metronome, ticking away, keeping them in check.
Whitney has left a book open on the table, the gardener’s manual, brought to the croft by a predecessor. It is well used, a dog-eared paperback. The spine arches, near cylindrical, and there is an inscription on the inside flap, which she has read many times. A simple hand:
Forgive me, Lionel. If I could go in your place, I would. But I’ll be here still when you return. ‘Sky above. Earth below. Heaven within.’
The name of the signee has been defaced and she wonders what K— might have done to consign Lionel to this fate. She pictures a middle-aged man, a few years younger than Whitney, tending the croft. Perhaps he died here, drowned among the kelp, or he keeled over and is buried in the barley field. Or, maybe Lionel paid his dues, one of the lucky ones who the Warden allowed home. Maybe he is cosied up with K— this minute. Maybe … but given the state of the place when they arrived, that does not seem likely.
Those cold uncertain days are ones she will never forget. The Warden had collected them on the mainland and taken them for processing. He did not tell them any more than he had to, just the minimum about the melting ice and how it had affected the permafrost, releasing spumes of toxic bacteria, which is why they needed the pills. The Limits, that is what he called this place.
‘Says here, you’ll be up for parole in twelve years.’
‘Parole?’ Whitney asked. ‘You mean we can come back?’
‘Didn’t they tell you this already?’
‘Tell us what?’
‘Mind you, twelve years won’t be easy …’ The Warden nodded, crafty-eyed. ‘But if you make it that long, there’ll be an assessment.’
‘Like an interview?’
‘More like a test. You’ll be given a choice, an opportunity to show you’re loyal. It’s different for everyone. I’ve known a few who have passed.’
He escorted them by boat, keeping them blindfolded in the hold throughout, who knows how many days. It had almost been a relief to get off that boat. To feel land, to see sky. All that space. And the croft, it was not what it is now. They have spruced it up, invested their time. You’d hardly know it was a prison.
She looks at the sideboard. Maybe the jigsaw belonged to Lionel as well. Or maybe it was brought by the detainee before him. There are other books too, besides the gardening manual. A couple of paperbacks, police procedurals set in Tromsø that they found aboard the freighter. They had provided a welcome distraction at first, but re-reading them down the years, they have become repetitive, diatonic, like the scales she was taught as a child. She revisits the non-fiction with greater regularity: the Japanese dictionary, and a Taschen book on early post-machine sculpture with essays by Gormley and Giacometti. She scans the shelves in the alcove, but the glossy, unmistakable hardback is missing. She does not remember when she saw it last. Probably Whitney has it in his studio. Although he practically knows the thing by heart.
What was K— asking forgiveness for? Presumably Lionel had gone in her place, willingly, by choice. That was it. It always came down to choice in the end, in The Limits … Their punishment was not simply about physical constraint. It has been carefully designed to accentuate guilt, resentment, feelings of complicity. And there is always a choice to make, at the end of things. It is inescapable.
And what of Maxime …
She remembers those last moments. The old man, a neighbour, had cornered her in the lobby. He shook his head. So much commotion. And she had expected a complaint to follow about the noise. About footfalls at all hours of the night. And she had her little speech prepared, about how they are very sorry and how they are looking for another apartment, somewhere on the ground floor, where they won’t make as much noise. She reaches for her key, the one about her neck, but the key is not there. And the old man says, ‘Is that your nephew back again?’ Across the lobby, a bell pings, the elevator doors part, and she glimpses the uniforms inside. Police. She backs away. And she starts up the stairs. Starts running. Nine flights. Bodies line the hallway. There are people crowding the door. White shirts. Black ties. They talk into Dictaphones as afternoon light fills the room. She pushes her way inside, sees piano keys. Sleek lacquer. A blanket on the floor beside the stool. The sprinklers drip, water runs down the walls. The door to the cubby is open. Spent matches ground into the carpet.
Can it really be twelve years?
From the bookcase, she retrieves her music book; a thick tome in faded leather with a silver pen clasped to the fastener. She had intended to make a record of compositions throughout her time in exile. Melodies, short arrangements, a chromatic library of emotion.
She skims the pages. There are a few brief compositions in the early portion of the book, restless dissonant works, and the experimental Timepiece, a long-abandoned project to which she was adding one note per day. It seems naïve now, that she ever believed her devotion to music might outlast her guilt.
Instead, most of the staff lines have been overwritten with various entries in her neat and tidy shorthand. These began as detailed accounts, records of temperature, rainfall, wind speed, but she soon accepted the need for economy. Rationing the pages, condensing her thoughts, she marked the days with simple tally lines: four vertical sticks crossed by a diagonal – the geometry of gates – until she replaced the tally lines with the Japanese character for the number five, 五, which she draws using five strokes instead of the customary four. It is less visually suggestive than a gate, at least to her eye.
Time was the only thing that bore recording.
Of the notebook’s 192 pages, as many as thirty remain unused, including ten blank pages at the back of the book. She can afford to be a little more expansive now. Uncapping the pen, she marks the previous day with a word: Sheep.
In the corner, the pill clock casts its pinkish glow.
Whitney will be down in a minute.
She takes their mugs from the sideboard. Both have been chipped repeatedly over the years. Hers bears a faded sketch of the artist Monet as an old man. His cartoonish beard hides much of his face, but the eyes define his character, revealing insouciance, defiance. She will pretend that it is a souvenir of a trip to Giverny, or a gift from the artist himself. The other mug, Whitney’s, is in better condition and bears blueprints for a range of Danish furniture in clear anatomical precision. He will say things like, ‘I’ll have my tea in the Danish mug tonight,’ and make casual references to holidays that they might have taken together, years before, if they had been permitted. Often these episodes will culminate with tales of a famous design museum, which, he will claim, is where he bought the mug. He will say it had been raining outside, he remembers the puddles, and afterwards, instead of starting back for the hotel, they had gone to a concert at KoncertKirken Blågårds Plads.
‘A trio of double-bassists in bowler hats,’ she will add. ‘Yes, I remember.’
She considers the mugs and her notebook, and it strikes her that, though much of their talk has grown perfunctory – discussions of dates, tests and the various forms that parole might take – music still finds ways of creeping in. A texture, timbre, a refrain. Her fingers walk the sideboard, and they have lost some nimbleness, but in her head she plays flawlessly.
Da-da-dum. Da-da-dum. Da-da-da-da-da-da-dum.
She used to practise while Max slept, with the piano lid lifted, and the hammers raised away from the strings; dead keys while the metronome clicked.
Upstairs the alarm goes, and she hears the roll of bedsprings. She pictures Whitney fumbling for the wristwatch on his bedside table. Something thuds on the floorboards. A book perhaps, and then the beeping stops.
She watches the door to the stairs. Like the door to the larder, it is composed of vertical slats, crossed by a wooden diagonal and fastened with black iron hinges. Up clicks the latch, and Whitney emerges, scratching his white stubble. He is ready for bed, wearing striped bottoms and a T-shirt beneath his dressing gown. He looks bleary-eyed, innocent, as though he has napped too little or too much. His dark eyebrows offset the white of his hair. They belong to a younger man.
Tea will enliven him.
The stovetop kettle whistles, and she adds a dash of scalding water to the pot, swirling it round, then emptying it over the sink. Stains mark the pot’s insides; darkened patches that appear ferrous by candlelight. They will not lift no matter how hard she scrubs. With care, she prunes the plant that hangs in the window, transferring a small bunch of nettles to the pot, which she douses in water.
She lets it brew for a few minutes, then takes Whitney his mug. ‘Did you sleep?’ she asks.
He sips away the heat. ‘A little. I wasn’t intending to. I thought I’d be too keyed up.’ He coughs, scrutinising the cylindrical white hulk in the corner of the room. ‘I just can’t stop thinking about parole. I can’t believe it’s almost here.’
She nods. ‘You don’t think the sheep could have anything to do with it, do you?’
He appears to mull this over. ‘You think the Warden sent it?’
‘Maybe,’ she shrugs.
‘To what end, love?’
‘I don’t know. A reward for enduring hardships.’
He laughs, distracted, and pats her on the shoulder as he heads for the short-wave radio on the wall. He lifts the receiver, clears his throat. ‘Evening, Warden. This is Long Sky Croft.’
He waits a moment before speaking again. ‘This is Whitney at Long Sky Croft. Come in. Over.’
Every night, he goes through this procedure, recounting little things from their days. Talking about the weather, the season. Things they have found on the beach. She finds it repetitive, monotonous, but soothing too. It offers hope, and a way to see the days through someone else’s eyes.
As ever, he finishes with the chess move. ‘Knight to B7,’ he says. ‘Check.’
They were each allowed one personal possession to bring with them to Long Sky Croft, and whereas she brought her pen, the music book and boxes full of cartridges, he chose this chess set. The pieces sit on the side, fresh from her dusting. It is commendable that he keeps it up. Three years since the Warden took his bishop, and there has not been a peep on the radio ever since. At first, they assumed the radio was malfunctioning, some technical issue, but as parole neared, Whitney started speculating that the silence on the line was part of a broader test. A ploy to see how they will act with nobody checking on them. And perhaps he is right. Perhaps this is all part of parole.
It is a tempting thought.
She looks at the board. She knows the arrangement better than he, and every so often she will change something, moving a piece, or re-introducing a pawn, just for fun. He has not noticed yet, or at least he has not said anything. As it stands, it is black to play, and Whitney could have mate in three, if only someone would pick up.
‘Well, Warden,’ he says, holding the receiver closer to his mouth. ‘We’ll expect you Saturday. Be well.’
He pulls up a chair beside her. ‘What do you think it’ll be like?’ he asks, ‘When we go back? You think the neighbourhood’s still standing? The Arts Club still drawing a crowd? Or, maybe Baumbacher got himself elected. Wouldn’t that be something?’
She smiles warmly. Just the thought of it. To be back in the city, among people. To be able to do what she likes, where she likes, when she likes … The freedom to sit of an evening on the sea wall, uninterrupted, looking back at the lights of the North Sea Road. Or to play at her piano the whole day long, without ever moving from her stool. To be able to sleep past 6 a.m. …
Her smile turns rigid, feels forced, and all these speculative futures seem suddenly built on something cold and solitary. Unease stirs. She wonders if he feels it too, that the closer they have got to parole, the more they have drifted apart.
9:57 p.m. The dial on the pill clock turns green. Whitney rises from the table. He places his thumb on the sensor. There is a whirr and a click and the mechanism dispenses a single pill in the collection drawer. She follows, and the clock dispenses a second capsule. Half red, half white, identical to Whitney’s in every way. At 10 p.m., she places hers on her tongue, promptly bites the casing, and a gloopy, tasteless liquid is released. She washes it down with the last swig of tea.
‘Come on,’ says Whitney, setting his mug in the sink. ‘We should sleep. It’s a busy week ahead.’
A week, she thinks. Twenty-one pills. One hundred and sixty-eight hours. Then, this will all be over.
With a loud tick, the dial turns red once more.