For at least nine months of the year there was always a fire in the hearth in the Living Room. The tall coal-scuttle always shone in contradiction to the begrimed contents while its mouth yawned at the ceiling as if bored with staring at it. A large brass dog sat to heel in opposite alignment across the grate, cleverly concealing the four tools hanging behind in his hollow shell; tongs, poker, brush, shovel.
All the other rooms in the home had the jealously guarded stamp of an individual family member or were communal, busy places. The upstairs had bedrooms featured fireplaces but to our great annoyance these were cold, dead relics in this age of heightened child safety. The huge anthracite-burning Aga cooker made the kitchen the cosiest room in the house but its anonymous radiance was no match for the never-static stimulation of blushing reds and escalating yellow. Here in the Living Room the fire was the hub of the family at rest, and the locus of my childhood. We rushed in from school, three blue faces juggling for position on one of the two stuffed armchairs that straddled the marble fireplace. We could tell from the warmth of the seats that Father and Mother had vacated their demarked places at the sound of half a dozen Clarks shoes on the driveway (that knowledge alone provided another type of warmth).
The coal fire gave us more than heat and company. At some vague point in my memory it didn’t even vie for attention with a television yet it drew the eye. This mound of black coal fragments ranged downwards from untouched onyx, to partially cauterised greying ebony, then from chalky white to the crimson of a Cardinal’s biretta. Peeping from between the mound this crimson morphed in a manner that invoked Hades, chilling as well as heating. Flames could be blue in their beginnings, through amber, to sunny at their tips. There were cautionary caveat’s about the proximity of ones person to the flame, leading to promises of compliance quickly forgotten.
Your fingertips felt it first and you persevered until actual pain sent its message. Need and impatience nullified evolutionary instinct, reversed the logic of tentative temperature sensing. The best sensation was on your face. It began on the tip of your nose then suffused like a mushroom cloud and with radiance that seemed to match. That was so pleasant. It was so tactile. I can feel it now, a lifetime later. Soon the layers of outer clothing could be removed and with each discard the sensation intensified as your skin responded to the ever approaching scald. Finally you quit, not because you wanted to but because there was now a furnace inside you and you were sated. Lesser doses would be required intermittently before the final bedtime toasting – that riotous, pajama-coloured, body-cuddling, snug and safe fire in your heart.
These days I live in a climate where fireplaces are a rarity and even if accidentally discovered, tend to be disguised ornately to hide their true role. There are alternative ways to heat rooms that claim to be more efficient, safer, environmentally friendlier and I expect that they are indeed all of these things. The only error in their claims is that they purport to be “alternatives”. But they aren’t – not by a country mile.