The Buck Inn at Flixton sits between a tree-fringed pasture, and an enormous collection of military aircraft grounded on a Suffolk field. Having heard good things about the afternoon tea served there, I’ve ventured across the border from Norfolk with my parents and father-in-law: I forgot Father’s Day and said I’d make amends with cake.
First, however, I have decreed we are to visit the aviation museum just beyond the pub’s back door, believing firmly that all pleasures must be earned. It’s been threatening every kind of British summer weather and so, in a collection of raincoats and sunhats, we survey the planes dotted about with the melancholy look of beached seals (“Meteor!”, says my husband knowledgably, pointing at a plane that seemed to me as insubstantial as papier-mache).
We find ourselves in a place in which something strange or interesting occurs every few feet. A man in a blue tabard reading “I CAN HELP” explains the pandemic was rather good for the museum, which is run by volunteers. “People just sat at home doing nothing,” he says, “and they thought, I could be doing something, instead.” A menacing anti-aircraft missile has been designated the fire assembly point, and signs asking that dogs be kept on leads are helpfully placed at dog height. Children holding dripping ice-creams are shown inside the Sea Prince training aircraft, while a volunteer in a pretty dress explains that her father had flown a B-29 Superfortress, and died at 93. In a tin hangar that had once been a field hospital, my own father raps a V2 rocket with his walking stick. “No,” he says, a little sadly, “it won’t blow up.” Elsewhere, 1940s swing music is drifting from the Naafi where tea is being served, and at a kind of jumble sale I find a Dr Zhivago first edition for £1. The stupid malice of war is evident everywhere: it isn’t possible to forget all those lost men and boys, and the families who lost them. In a glass case, carefully dusted, a twisted metal bracket that’s all that’s remaining of a Halifax bomber is labelled FAILED TO RETURN.
Then we become hungry and drift back to the Buck. Already the table is set with fine china, and there’s the instinctive rubbing of hands with which the British greet the prospect of a nice cup of tea. A waitress with a clock tattoo and the whisky voice of a lounge singer brings three towering cake stands that would shame the Ritz, and we examine these with childish delight: “Look, Mum,” I say, “a cream horn! Do you remember the lady who used to make these for chapel teas?”
“Shall we say grace?” my father says and, obediently, we all bow our heads, and nobody minds in the least. I was raised a Strict Baptist, a denomination that eschews every vice from the purchase of charity lottery tickets upwards, but cannot be beaten on the assembly or consumption of tea. We begin with finger sandwiches: there’s smoked salmon, of course, and coronation chicken, which leads to discussion of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, and which element should be assigned to the next royal celebration. “Carbon?” says my father-in-law mordantly, addressing himself to a majestic sausage roll, while my father placidly eats clotted cream with a teaspoon.
The manager oversees proceedings with as much proprietorial affection as if he’d built the pub himself from cellar to rafters. He’s dressed all in black, and has pierced his eyebrow with silver: he’d be at home in the small hours behind a Berlin bar. All this, he says, gesturing to the sunny room with its pine tables, had been the dream of a friend of his. The pub had been dreary and neglected, and his friend had taken it on with plans to make it a better place. But he’d died unexpectedly and young and now, in his memory, his friends and family carry out the dream. Well: that explains it, I think, looking at the block parquet floors released from decades imprisoned under sticky carpets, and the smiling waitress bringing our third pot of tea: there’s a sort of benevolent spirit presiding here.
Tea, in the end, defeats us. The best we ever had, we say, patting our stomachs, marvelling over tiny cheese tarts and pink pillows of marshmallow. Miniature cupcakes and the last cream horn are packed in paper boxes for a second tea, later on. “Thank you,” we say, thanking hosts both seen and unseen, “we’ll come back.”
Driving back to Norfolk, the planes dwindling out of sight, I think of the man outlived by his own dream, and the waitress with the clock ticking away on her arm – I think of volunteers cleaning the buckled propeller of a helicopter brought down with its pilot, and the mothers I’d seen entertaining their babies in the Naafi. I am conscious of a tender, sad sensation, so rare to me I might have mistaken it for indigestion, but which, in the end, I identified as this: affection, however compromised, for the country of my birth.