New Scotland Street Chapter 67: Bruce in conversation

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‘What will you have to drink, Bruce?” asked Harry, as he led the way into the drawing room. “We’ve got … well, I suppose we have most things.”

Bruce looked about him. Yes, he thought, most things – in abundance, he imagined. He noticed the picture hanging over the fireplace, an ornately framed Highland scene. “Glencoe?” he asked.

Harry gave him an amused glance. “Glencoe? Oh, that. No, not Glencoe. The Highlands certainly, but why would you say Glencoe?”

Bruce smiled. “Isn’t that …” He pointed at the hill in the foreground, an exaggerated conical peak surrounded with swirling mists. “Ben … Ben … ?” He looked to Jenny in a mute appeal for assistance, but she simply shrugged.

“Ben?” asked Harry.

“Ben … You know, the one on the left as you go down towards … towards the place with the bridge, before you get to that ferry at …”

“Corran?” prompted Harry. “Are you thinking about the Corran Ferry?”

“Yes. The one that goes over to Mull. To that place … Fish ….”

“Fishnish? That’s not the Corran Ferry, no. The Corran Ferry crosses the Corran Narrows. It goes nowhere near Mull.”

“Ah,” said Bruce. “I was thinking of another ferry.”

“I think you were.”

Bruce smiled nervously. “There are all those ferries over there, aren’t there? Going all over the place.”

“Well, they actually follow fairly well-defined routes,” said Harry.

“And they’re always ploughing them into things, aren’t they?” said Bruce. “Those stupid MacBrayne captains. They’re always hitting bits of island.”

Harry stared at him. “Not really,” he said. “Not these days. My godfather was a MacBrayne skipper. He was a very good friend of my father’s. They fished together.”

“Ah. Well, I wasn’t thinking of him.”

“Clearly not,” said Harry.

“No, I can see it’s not Glencoe,” said Bruce, moving closer to the painting and peering at it. “Funny. It looked like it.” He turned to Harry. “So where is it?”

“It’s invented,” said Harry. “Nowhere in particular. The Victorians had a romantic idea of the Highlands – a non-specific romantic idea. They created a landscape of the mind. They increased the height of the mountains. That painting is somewhat like that. We thought it might be somewhere near Loch Katrine, but it isn’t really. It’s Horatio McCulloch.”

“Ah,” said Bruce. “I thought so too. Ben McCulloch. Of course.”

Harry glanced at his daughter, who busied herself with turning on a standard lamp.

“Now then, what will you have?” Harry asked again.

“A G&T?” said Bruce.

Harry hesitated. “You’re driving back to Edinburgh after dinner?”

Bruce nodded. “Yes.” He had to get the Morgan back to Gav, of course – not that he was planning to reveal that. Cinderella, he thought. The coach has to get back before it becomes a pumpkin again. Ridiculous story.

“I thought that you might want to drink something soft,” said Harry. “Bearing in mind that you’re driving.”

Bruce pursed his lips. “Yes, I wasn’t going to ask you for a G&T. I was just wondering whether you had it.”

“Oh, we definitely have gin,” said Harry. “We make some, in fact.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Here?”

Harry laughed. “No, at a small gin distillery we have over in Falkirk.”

“Hah!” said Bruce. “Falkirk.”

“So, can I get you something soft?”

Bruce nodded. “A Diet Coke maybe.”

“No, we don’t have that, I’m afraid. Water? We have plenty of water.”

I bet you do, thought Bruce. You’ll have a loch or two, I imagine. And a river.

Harry changed the subject. “Jenny tells me you’re interested in whisky,” he said.

“Yes,” Bruce answered. “You could say that.”

“Any favourites?” asked Harry.

Bruce hesitated. Then, “Talisker. I like Talisker. Give me an Islay whisky any day.”

There was a brief silence. Then Harry said, “Actually, Skye. You’re thinking of Skye.”

Bruce laughed. “Of course I was. All those distilleries on Skye – I get them mixed up.”

“I think there are only two on Skye,” said Harry. “Three if you count Raasay.”

“Yes. Three,” said Bruce quickly. “I don’t like too much peat, naturally.”

“And yet you like Talisker?”

“And there’s nothing wrong with Glenfiddich,” said Bruce.

“Not my taste exactly,” said Harry. “I know it’s very popular, but don’t you find it a bit sweet?”

“It depends,” said Bruce.

Jenny now joined in. “Show Bruce that special bottle you bought the other day, Daddy.” Then, turning to Bruce, she said, “He’s got a collection of really old whiskies.”

Harry demurred. “I’m not sure that Bruce would be all that interested.”

“Oh, I am,” said Bruce. “I love old whisky.”

“I’m not planning to open this one,” said Harry, smiling. “It’s part of a collection.”

Harry moved to a glass-fronted cupboard at the side of the room and took out a curiously-shaped bottle cradled on a small wooden stand. He passed it carefully to Bruce. “75-year-old Mortlach,” he said. “Taken from the cask seventy-five years on. This was made in 1939, would you believe?”

“It’s the oldest whisky there is,” said Jenny. “1939.”

“Have you tried it?” asked Bruce.

Harry smiled again. “I don’t think many people will be drinking that,” he said. “There were about a hundred bottles. Cask number 2475. They took it to the market a few years ago.”

“Goodness,” said Bruce.

“Charlie Maclean’s written about it,” said Harry. “He’s your man when it comes to whisky. Known throughout the world. You read his stuff?”

“Of course,” said Bruce. Charlie Maclean?

“He talks about Morlach’s famously rich and complex style. It’s the way they made it in those days. He says that they would still have been using brewer’s yeast back in 1939.”

“So they would,” said Bruce. What other yeast was there? He was not at all sure. In fact, why did they use yeast? Did you have to?

Jenny pointed to the bottle. “I would never pay what Daddy paid for that. I couldn’t believe it. Tell him, Daddy.”

Harry made a self-effacing gesture. “Oh, we don’t need to go into that …”

“No, tell Bruce. Tell him what that’s worth.”

“He won’t be interested.”

“No, I am,” said Bruce. “Let me guess. Eight hundred?”

Harry smiled, but clearly found discussion of price uncomfortable.

“Twenty-five thousand pounds,” said Jenny. “Can you believe it? Twenty-five thousand for …”

Bruce looked down at the bottle in his hands. And then, just as he tried to make out the script incised in the glass, the bottle slipped from his hands. Curving a tiny parabola, the 75-year-old Mortlach tumbled down, to land just at the edge of the Kashan rug underfoot, but slightly on the wrong side of that, so that it hit the stone of the hearth. And shattered. The stain of the spilled whisky spread quickly. It was round at first and then, uncannily, became the same shape as Scotland itself – with outlying droplets being the smaller islands.

Harry watched, transfixed. Jenny gave a yelp and bent down, hopelessly, to pick up a shard of glass that had landed at her feet. Bruce caught his breath.

“Oh,” he said. And then, once again, “Oh.”