The magnificent lilac at the front of our house was cultivated by former occupants and was much loved by them and their neighbours. As we conveyed endless boxes through the front door on moving day, no fewer than five local residents dropped by with welcome cards and pruning tips. Clearly we had inherited a shrub of great horticultural importance.
In the last two years the lilac has flowered twice. The first time we missed it entirely, returning home from holiday to a lawn carpeted in purple petals and a chorus of approval from Derek and Enid next door. Last year even I was impressed to see the amethyst bloom leap from bough to bough, the scent of lilac blossom filling the air as I walked up the drive. “The best year yet!” Alan and Carole wrote in the card they slipped through our door (they don’t talk much, preferring to record their views on barking dogs, crying children and next year’s street barbecue on notelets depicting Monet watercolours).
My husband has been threatening the lilac with the secateurs since last summer, complaining that the over-laden boughs steal our sunlight and dampen our lawn. It has been the topic of much after-dinner discussion, as I defend the right of the lilac to spread its glorious arms and bask in what little sunshine we have had this summer.
Now I ease the car into second gear as I turn into our close, sensing immediately that something is amiss. As always, despite my best efforts, I park askew in the driveway and step out of the car, leaving the door open in shock at what I can now see. Cut down in its prime, the lilac stands mutilated, amputated beyond all reasonable pruning standards, its few remaining branches limp and humiliated. Raped of its late blooms and bereft of foliage, it is unidentifiable.
The front door eases open and my husband tentatively steps outside, his face the image of our son’s after last week’s encounter with a reluctant cat and a pot of Sudocreme. “I got a little carried away” he needlessly explains, “I wasn’t sure when to stop”. I open my mouth to say something, but he interrupts; “Could you… er… look pleased about it, do you think? Regardless of what you really think?”
“What?” I snap, trying to get past him and into the house, where I know a vat of white wine is chilling in the fridge.
“Oh please, honey, just look happy about it, and sort of… look around a bit. You know, with a smile on your face. It’s just that Derek told me how cross you’d be, and I told him you’d told me to do it like that, and that you’d be delighted. So could you be? Delighted, I mean”.
I am as far from being delighted as if I had just stood in a dog turd. Wearing flip flops. But he is after all my husband, and his little face pleads with me in a fashion not dissimilar to the way in which the toddler appeals for an extra half hour of CBeebies. I slick an over-exuberant grin onto my face and walk towards the massacred lilac, looking it up and down and nodding vigorously as I mouth “oh yes, yes, this is exactly what I was after” as though communicating across a crowd to a profoundly deaf guest at a heavy metal concert.
“God, yes, that’s perfect” Husband hisses, “keep going – Enid’s looking out of the kitchen window”.
Getting into it now, I give an admiring pat to the beleaguered trunk of the lilac then punch the air in the manner of American football players; “Woo! Yeah! Right on!” I wheel round and high-five my slightly stunned husband, who is beginning to wish he had simply ushered me inside without comment. The neighbours may now believe that I approve of my husband’s horticultural endeavours, but they also now consider his wife belongs in an asylum. Nice.