Joys Of Modern Life: 20. The First Sip Of Beer

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THE ONLY one that counts. Everything that follows is bland by comparison, a tepid coating on your tongue. The harder you swallow, the more meaningless the excess. Perhaps, within the tragedy of the final sip you can begin to recapture...

The first gulp! Its journey is already well advanced by the time it reaches your throat. With a frothy trail of framing gold around your lips, bitter happiness slowly permeates your palate. It seems to last a small eternity, that first sip. You drink without hesitation, gulled by your own instinct. The ritual is familiar enough: the right quantity to ensure a perfect prelude; the instant rush of wellbeing, punctuated by a contented sigh, a smack of the lips, or silence; the giddy sensation of pleasure teetering on the brink of infinity... Yet you know that the best is already over.

You put your glass down on the beer mat and push both slightly away. Time to relish the colour - ersatz honey, cold sun. If only you were patient and wise enough to grasp the miracle behind the disappearing act. You notice with satisfaction that the brewer's name on the glass corresponds with the beer you ordered. But whatever the relation of the vessel to its contents, nothing can bridge the gap between them, or conjure liquid out of thin air. What wouldn't you give to capture and encode the secret of pure gold? Instead, you sit at your table, like a frustrated alchemist intent on keeping up appearances - each mouthful is a falling away from pleasure. Happiness has a bitter taste when you have to drink in order to forget the first sip.

From `The Small Pleasures Of Life' by Philippe Delerm, published by Phoenix House, pounds 5.99