Brideshead Revisited, Death, E-Cigarettes, Evelyn Waugh, Humor, Irn-Bru, Mars, Nicola Sturgeon, Obesity Crisis, Paternalism, Public Health, Satire, Science Fiction, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism, Whisky
I went to visit Angus shortly after the twelfth referendum. NO had once again won by the slenderest of margins. By now my post-referendum condolences felt as stiffly ritualised as the enactment of an annual Christmas dinner. My car drove over to Angus’ farmhouse outside St Andrews and it then drove itself around the town, or wherever it went, whilst we sat down to a haggis supper. I had brought along my twelfth commiserative bottle of Highland Park, though I suspected that if Angus had been more prudent, the dregs from the previous eleven bottles could have made up a full one by now.
He looked even more glum than usual. “The Martian colony is thriving,” I told him encouragingly. When NASA had begun to terraform Mars, a subscription scheme amongst Scottish nationalists had purchased an area that was roughly equal in size to their earthbound homeland. They had eagerly mapped it out – this dust-heap was to be the new Aberdeen, that crater was to be the next Loch Lomond. Unfortunately, the neighbouring colony to the south belonged to a Brazilian mineral extraction corporation. At times the Brazilians were too friendly and at others they were too freely militaristic. There was somehow not the correct configuration of grievance available to make the Martian Scotland seem authentic.
“Put the bottle down there,” Angus directed gruffly. “I want to show you something…”
He had edited my website Tychy during the 2020s after the previous editor James had suffered a terrible and fatal mishap. During this period, the Scottish government was trying to outlaw flammable tobacco and James had been finally forced to purchase an electronic cigarette. These e-cigarettes had been dogged by a number of safety defects; the batteries were poor quality and in certain conditions they would spontaneously detonate.
Yet in James’ instance the explosion had not been spontaneous. He had been very drunk and he had taken the plastic replica cigarette out of his jacket pocket, put it in his mouth, and absent-mindedly lit it using his old lighter. Most of his head had been blown off. The brains that had so skilfully woven such short stories as “Sundive” – works that are now widely anthologised and recognised as the finest in the language – had been ignominiously splattered over the pavement outside the Standing Order.
Angus was rummaging around in his drinks cabinet. He lurked with arthritic deliberation amongst the bottles until he had at last located the spring that opened the special concealed compartment in the back. Vapour rose, indicating that he had accessed a mini freezer. His fingertips paused, fluttering tentatively for a second, before they dipped down into the chill.
He had extracted a dumpy little can, which must have been once a fiery orange though it was now a faded satsuma colour. You could still discern the blue “I” that had been inset in the middle. Angus stood the can like a toy soldier on the dining-room table for me to admire. “This could well be the last of these left,” he confided fondly.
I smiled. “They were called Irn-Bru, weren’t they? The drink was this sort of marvellous luminescent rust colour.”
He eyed me appreciatively, as if I had confirmed to his surprise that I actually possessed a soul. “Aye indeed,” he nodded with force. “You remember that?”
“I remember the colour. I have to confess that I can’t remember what it tasted like.”
“Well, we’re about to find out. Nobody is going to fight a thirteenth referendum – the number is too unlucky. It’s time to salute Scotland for the final time. They changed the drink’s recipe, back in 2018 this was. Folk began to hoard it all around the country. Barr had reduced the sugar content… I can’t recall the reason now but it was all a load of superstitious nonsense.”
“Obesity,” I prompted.
“Aye, they had got up this campaign to stop people eating sugar. They abandoned it when they realised that it was hurting the economy so much. Nobody had any energy left – folk were sleeping for thirteen, fourteen hours per day. It was crazy! Aye, I hold that woman in high regard – she had a lot of gumption – but I’ll never forgive her for that!”
I followed his eyes and saw that they had not been gazing into the middle distance but at a mugshot of Nicola Sturgeon that was framed over the drinks cabinet. She had died several years ago at the bewildering age of one hundred and ninety-seven. It might take you aback that somebody with so much energy could die so young, but her immune system had rejected an important fleet of stem cells as obstinately as though they had each had little Union Jacks printed across them.
There was a story surrounding her death that not many people are aware of. In fact, Angus had shared it with me. He had been there at the care home when she had died. There had been this pesky little priest sniffing around like a mouse at the start of a trail of crumbs. Angus had raged indignantly that, “They’ll come now, when her mind’s wandering and she hasn’t the strength to resist, and claim her as a death-bed penitent.” Nicola’s relatives had fended off the priest repeatedly but eventually a splinter decided that a visit from him might comfort the ebbing patient.
“I want her to make some little sign of assent,” the priest told those assembled outside the bedroom. “I want her, anyway, not to refuse me; then I want to give her God’s pardon.”
Inside, Nicola was almost gone. “‘Now,” said the priest, “I know you are sorry for all the sins of your life, aren’t you? Make a sign, if you can. You’re sorry, aren’t you?” But there was no sign. “Try and remember your sins; tell God you are sorry. I am going to give you absolution. Tell God you are sorry you have offended him.”
Angus suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy. It seemed so small a thing that was asked, the bare acknowledgement of a present, a nod in the crowd. He prayed more simply; “God forgive her her sins” and “Please God, make her accept your forgiveness.”
Suddenly, Nicola’s eyes opened. Everybody instantly took a step back. “It is true,” she gasped, “I have done so much wrong and caused so much suffering. I have been a scoffer at all that could have made a difference. Now, however, I must make amends… I must do it… bring me the papers…”
“Yippee!” cried the priest. Or words to that effect.
But Nicola had not noticed him. “Aye, I will join the Labour party,” she told her relatives.
After they gave her the little red card, she expired.
The can was defrosting in a teacup of hot water. “So when had Irn-Bru been withdrawn from circulation?” I asked.
“Soon after they changed the recipe. There were moonshine versions but most of them were nearer to Tizer than to Irn-Bru. They could never quite nail the exact taste.”
We waited patiently until the can had defrosted. I suppose that we were both aware that once the contents were drunk, this classic drink would be extinct forever, the tyrannosaurus rex of obsolete beverages.
Angus struggled unsuccessfully to make the can crack open. The ringpull was stiff and the crack had got snagged somewhere. He had set out two crystal whisky glasses but the drink that poured limply into the first of them was flat and of a watery brown hue rather than the normal zany sparkling orange. It looked like water that had been scooped up from a puddle on the street. The drink had been clearly in the freezer too many decades.
We beheld what was probably the last Irn-Bru in the world and it was no longer an Irn-Bru. It had died before its death.
“I don’t think that we should drink this,” I suggested to Angus gently. “It could kill us.”
Before I could stop him, Angus had snatched impulsively at the glass with a shaking hand and gulped at a mouthful. His face was as hard and lined as a death mask. For a second or so he tried to submerge or even drown his mind in the brown liquid. He searched its depths for something fleeting but real, some vestige of the aborted project, some tangible connection with what might have been. Alas, there was only this sad water with no flavour or kick, just like Loch Ness without the monster. Angus swallowed and then cleared his head and looked up at me with astonishingly clear eyes.
His voice horrified me – it sounded pitiful, sickly, and frightened, an oyster teased from its shell. “Around the world they’ve been doing so much. In China they’ve done so much with robots and in America they’ve done so much with stem cells, but here all we’ve done is campaign in referendum after referendum after referendum after referendum after referendum after…” As he rocked, chanting to himself, he seized the old can and crumpled it angrily in his fist.