Today, as ever, I was awoken by the big dog sniffing my face and wagging his tail. Every morning it's the same. The big dog has his own armchair by the front door and underneath the window where he gets to lie and gaze outside, watching and waiting until he sees something worthy of a good, old, warning bark or two. He stands guard, ever vigilant against the cat that lives at the last house, the postman or the little girl from the first house that giggles, blows bubbles and decorates the paving stones with chalk. Once darkness falls we close the curtains and he re-positions himself under our feet, huffs, farts and falls asleep. Fierce when he has to be, but only when he has to be. Just like a big dog should be. But only when he has to be.
Each morning the birds that live in the bush outside our front door start their chattering and chirruping, signalling the approach of the morning sun and prompting the big dog to come and wake me so I can stumble, bleary eyed, downstairs. I open the curtains for him and he begins another session of guard duty. It's a pleasant way to be woken and I generally get to see the sun rise whilst I'm waiting for the chips and processors in the television and digi-box to go through their own waking up process and eventually, after what seems like an age, presenting me with the BBC news.
The house I live in is very similar to the house my Grandfather lived in with my Grandmother until his death in '78. A two up, two down with outside toilet, ridiculously steep staircase, a scullery and a small back yard. My Granddad smoked a pipe, a habit which I now share and, some nights, when I'm sat in a pungent cloud of Condor original I close my eyes and remember him. I was nine years old when he died, too young to have enough nice memories, but then however long he'd lived, for his Grandson, it wouldn't have been long enough.
Every Friday night my parents would take me and my little sister to Gran and Granddad's house, not a million miles from where I now find myself in a place called Radcliffe, and leave us there for a visit. I loved it.
Granddad had piloted bombers in World War II which meant he had boxes of photographs and a head full of stories to entertain me with. At tea time he and I would go to the fish and chip shop where I would get a meat pie and chips and a big bottle of "Strike Cola". We'd return home via the off licence, the "Bottle and Basket", where we would stock up on sweets (Spangles, Toffos and rainbow sherbert), pipe tobacco and a tall bottle or two of Guinness. The four of us would eat off the plates my Gran had warmed in the electric oven seated around the drop-leaf dining table in the scullery. Once fed, we'd retire to the living room to watch television. The picture on the big, old box would grow, slowly, from a small, white dot in the centre of the screen as the television warmed up. In those olden days you had to wait an age before being able to see the news, isn't modern technology brilliant?
I can remember much of my time with him in great detail. On Saturdays we would go out for a walk. On these walks he educated me on important things. The physics behind a parachute, how aircraft stay in the sky, what a keystone is and how to build a dam. One weekend he taught me to ride a bike without stabilisers in the time honoured way. "Don't worry, I'm holding the seat, off you go...." he said, before not holding the seat and lighting his pipe as I fell off at the end of the street.
On another memorable weekend we were in his loft, having a clear out. I was six and it was very exciting, balanced on the rafters holding a torch while cobwebs tickled my neck and Granddad rummaged around, passing box after box back through the little hatch to my Grandmother below.
The dusty boxes lay scattered around the bedroom floor. Granddad was tasked with going through every one of these boxes and throw away the tat while Gran Kath returned to the scullery and busied herself with whatever it is that Grandmothers do in the kitchen, wiping her hands on her pinny and waving a wooden spoon.
The sorting didn't go well. I opened the first box, it smelt old and interesting, kind of spicy, and from on top of other assorted memorabilia the faces of a group of uniformed men, stood in front of a WWII bomber, beamed smiles up at me. One of the group was much taller than the others, my Granddad, looking much younger but with the same slicked-back hairstyle and half-bent pipe in his hand.
"I haven't seen that for donkey's years." He said, as he picked the photograph up gently and smiled back at himself. Cue the best afternoon with him I think I ever had.
Having just re-read what I've thus far written I can see that it's starting to look a little self indulgent. Don't fret, I'm not going to go all "Hobson's Choice" or "Love on the Dole" on you.
A day or two ago I posted a picture of a letter that was published in, I think, the Northern Echo and referring to our problems over seas with Isis, IS, Isil or whichever moniker we're supposed to be using at the moment. It put me in mind of the Kenny Everett character, an American general with a chest full of medals and the catchphrase "Round 'em up, put 'em in a field and bomb the bastards!"
Under the heading, which should have carried a spoiler alert, of "Blanket bomb IS", the following opinion was printed.
"The only way to stop Islamic State (IS) is to strike back - hard. With each mission flown by the RAF costing thousands of pounds there is no alternative but to do as we did in the Second World War - pick out an area and blanket bomb it. This type of operation was done in in (sic) 1944 WITHOUT ANY REGRETS. Today there is far too much coverage of conflict on television. The members of IS are barbaric. They deserve no mercy."
This was what had started me thinking about that afternoon with Granddad, looking at old photographs of aircraft and dapper young men, photos of the view from the windows of cockpits of foreign lands and ships at sea. Then a picture of a scorched Earth. The remains of one of the most beautiful cities that Europe had ever seen, the Gothic masterpiece that was once Dresden, reduced to blackened rubble, twisted steel and ash.
My Granddad was tall, handsome and proud. Too proud to have cried the tear that fell past my ear and onto the glossy print that sat on my knee as I sat on his, so I wiped it away, ignored it and didn't look round at his face until I felt his breathing return to normal, rather than the short, sharp sobs he struggled to stifle.
I didn't want to upset Granddad by prying, but I was six years old and a six year old is an inquisitive creature. I didn't understand most of what he was telling me, I focused on the bangs and the exciting, zoomy bits. He mentioned a lot of people died and the six year old me chirruped up with "yeah, but they were the baddies, Granddad." The box got put away then, so I played with the Chinese Dragons made from straw that he kept in his display cabinet, nicking a little, red, plastic cocktail stick in the shape of a sword from the cup behind the mythical beasts and slaying them over and again, my heroics accompanied by a lot of "oosh, ha, urgh" noises for dramatic effect.
It was many years after his death that I read about Dresden, about the blanket bombing and the fireball created over those magnificent buildings that sucked the air and the people in the streets below up and into it's fiery tempest. It was a while longer before I connected these people with the "baddies" I'd imagined as a child. I remembered seeing the tear that Granddad surely hadn't shed and his face wearing an expression that wasn't his usual broad smile. A man of few expressions, smiling broadly was his favourite, and mine. I saw him angry once, he'd jumped out of his car to remonstrate with an acquaintance near the crossing on Long Causeway. I watched through the window, the words a little muffled by glass but clear enough. Impressive and scary at the same time, just like your Granddad should be, when he has to be. But only when he has to be.
There's a saying, "Lest we forget", that crops up on memorial days. We rightly remember our fallen heroes, the men that died so that we may live...
...but there's more to remember than that.