Evelyn Waugh, best of all novelists, wrote that the smell of food cooking gave more pleasure than the meal itself. To him the most wonderful of feasts would be a series of dishes brought from the kitchen, passed under the diner's nose, held there a few moments, then taken away again.
Course could follow course - soup, meat, fish, cheese, dessert and back again, if you so wished, to soup, and all with whiffs of wine to match - without the diner ever being disappointed by satiety. He would merely be blessed with a constant sense of pleasure about to happen, the delightful tease of expectation.
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The thought applies not only to food. Sex, sport, parties: all are better in anticipation. Think back to when you were at school. How slowly the holidays approached. And how much joy they promised. But when they finally arrived, how soon the threat of boredom followed, the afternoons with nothing much to fill them.
But yet, experience does little to jade our eagerness. Disappointment barely wears us down. Still we all look forward, and hope remains the signature note of our species. There is nothing we can do about it. Reason is powerless. We are incurably optimist.
Come with me now. We're stepping out of this basement study and through the garage and out into the dank world. Whoa did you see those? Yes, indeed they are swallows. They've been coming here for years, and I have written about them several times, but this is the first time they have wintered here.
They roost each night in the I-beam that underpins the deck. Their droppings have stained the garage door. How they find enough insects in winter to sustain their tiny frames, I do not know but I never see them without a lift of the heart. For they speak of the spring that is coming.
That blackened thing's a hydrangea. The previous occupant planted it and I barely tend it. As you can see I've yet to prune the withered flower heads from last summer. But it's a durable beast, as persistent as hope.
For look on that stem there, the one furthest from the wall. I noticed it this morning, the first hint of unfurling green. It's emerging somehow from what seems to be the corpse of a plant. Behold the miracle of resurrection, the annual tilt of this tiny planet towards an insignificant sun. It's hope made chlorophyll.
And it thrills us, I think, because what made the hydrangea, that same blind random process of adaptation, survival, reproduction, evolution, made us. That one leaf tells us that we are where we belong in time and space, and that spring is coming again. And the spirit lifts at the thought.
There's nothing new in all this, of course. Robert Browning, a century and a half ago, wrote of "the elm tree bole … in tiny leaf". His elm tree bole is my hydrangea.
And in the same poem Browning wrote of the "wise thrush" that "sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could recapture
That first fine careless rapture."
I saw and heard a thrush at dawn the other morning as I took the dog down by the wharf. The thrush had perched, as thrushes do, high on a macrocarpa in the half-light, and it did indeed sing each phrase twice over and Browning's words went flooding through my head.
And once you start to notice spring it's everywhere. Look there at the stunted magnolia that I planted myself and that, if anything, over the past five years, has shrunk. But it's not lost hope.
Gamely it still thrusts out a few improbable white flowers on bare branches every spring. And the buds that hold the petals, buds the shape of candle flames, buds that have stood in all weathers since the leaves fell in autumn, are now perceptibly swelling, fattening with hope. And the sense of their swelling, of the flowers to come in the spring to come enlivens me, excites me, makes a leathery heart pulse more greenly.
Of course when spring arrives I'll soon cease to notice the hydrangea leaves and magnolia flowers and I'll curse the weeds that power up through every crack in the drive and the lawn will be a jungle and the weather will disappoint.
But all that has yet to happen. Right now I can only smell spring cooking and it makes me happy.