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  • Writer's pictureDamian Robb

Stray Thoughts 05 | Imitation Fire


A couple of weeks ago, I bought Holly an imitation fireplace for her birthday.

A year ago, I wrote a blog about Holly's last birthday. I have no real interest, seemingly, to write about my own birthdays but seeing this person I love and have now known for fourteen years grow and flourish fascinates me. It’s a clichè but she truly does get better with age, as she drops any preconceived notions and ideas about who she should be and instead becomes more and more herself with every passing year. It’s incredible, as is she.

I write in that blog about how being thirty five is yours to do with what you will, and if you’ll permit me I’ll share a small snippet from that post. I wrote:

Because I’ll tell you this, thirty five is whatever you want it to be. It can be focused on work, or play, or fitness, or family. We’re past expectations and education and nestled deep into life. Everyday life. Mundane, if you allow it to be, but also so damn full of potential.

I feel the exact same is true of thirty six. I expect, and hope, to feel that same way for all our years to come.

But back to this imitation fireplace.

Holly and I have a long history of loving fireplaces. I know it’s a love we share with many.

Fireplaces, be them built into a wall, or freestanding, or even a fire pit in the back yard, all manage to elicit the same feeling of calm and comfort. They are a simple but stunning bit of aged architecture that can somehow make you feel safe with just the lighting of a match and some well stacked wood.

When we go travelling, or airbnb a place, we’re not that interested in a hot tub or a pool, but say you’ve got a fireplace and you’ll have our attention. Similarly, there is rarely a better experience than on a cold and grey day, than stepping into a pub, taking off your jacket, and seeing a fireplace raging in the corner. Better yet, seeing a seat by it. It’s ironic really, the peace provided by the fury of a fire. A calm brought on by so much rage.

For our own house, we do not have a fireplace, but we have had a number of fire pits over the years. The first one was gifted to us by my uncle. Except it wasn't really a fire pit, it was the drum of an old washing machine. It worked well enough. We stacked it on some bricks and boom, we had a fire pit. My main complaint about it though was that it was too high. I like to look at a fire, and for this one I either had to be standing right over it, or have a fire so big the flames shot out the top. I did both across its many uses.

It eventually rusted out and we invested in a chiminea. We got one with a mesh centre so, again, we could see the flame, but in doing so it completely defeated the purpose of a chiminea, to provide warmth over entertainment, and so was problematic from the start. Recently, we’ve moved onto our third and hopefully final one, which we made ourselves by simply stacking some old bricks we had lying around into an outdoor fireplace. It cost us nothing and is easily the best of the three. We stacked it in a way that left gaps to allow airflow through, and it's open front means I can see all the action up close and personal. Now, with the cold weather rolling in, we can get that baby roaring.

The house I grew up in did have a fireplace. It is a funny old house. One half of it once belonged to a hospital. The hospital, having served as a place for births, various ectomys, and maybe even the odd amputation or two, did itself in turn have pieces of it sliced off and dropped on plots of land around the area; including one that would eventually be bought by my parents. Because of this, the living room has thick wood panelling that by all rights should be on the outside of a house, complete with wrought iron sconces. And, in another example of bringing the outside in, it also has thick and long, green and black, shag carpet; and however thick and long you’re thinking right now, you should double it.

A few years ago, a previous owner of the house dropped by to revisit it and see how it had done in the intervening years and was delighted to see the carpet still in place. She had been the one to install it and had done so, she explained to me, because she wanted her flooring to look like grass. I can’t say with any real certainty that she achieved that goal, but the carpet was, and remains, memorable, often commented on by any who visited, and stuck in my own mind as a true nightmare to vacuum.

Also present in this living room is a fireplace. It sits over by the kitchen door, mostly forgotten now, and used primarily as just another small counter top to place things on. Its days of burning wood came to an end when my parents had ducted heating installed. Before that though, I have memories of sitting in front of it and warming myself against its yellow orange glow. But, while we no longer had need to light it, that wasn’t the last time it would get some use, because almost a decade after it had been lit for the last time, the possums moved in.

Or one possum really, a mumma one, who, in a quest to find a safe place to nest, somehow stumbled upon the flu that sticks out at the top of the roof and climbed her way in and down. She must have slid down that long bit of metal piping and been overjoyed to find a small metal box, unused and safe and primed for birth. She brought it some bedding and soon she wasn’t the only possum in the fireplace.

At first, my parents tried to dissuade her from using the fireplace as her nest, but at some point that changed and soon my Dad, in a complete 180, was cleaning it up and freshening up the bedding while she was out and about at night. That was her routine: sleep in the fireplace during the day, then scratch her way up the chimney to hunt and forage at night. Getting out of the fireplace wasn’t always easy for her though and some nights my parents would hear her scratch her way only partly up the chimney and then noisly slide back down. This would repeat a number of times until Dad would eventually go to help her out, which he did by opening the font of the fireplace and then shepherding her toward the front door. The first time he did this, she ran and panicked, going in every direction, but after a few times she grew so used to it that eventually Dad would open the fireplace and she would calmly make her way toward the exit.

That was her daily routine, but her annual routine was to have a joey in the fireplace, raise it, and then once old enough, have a bit of a battle to get it to move out and start a life of its own. My parents knew all this because they watched it happen. Once they had accepted the possum as an equal member of the household, Dad cleaned the glass front of the fireplace, which meant, as possums are nocturnal, that at any point in the day you could just look over and see a mum and bub possum peacefully snoozing. Our own private little viewing box, right there in the living room. Even when not filled with fire, it turns out a fireplace can still provide warmth and safety.

There is one last fireplace that I’ll tell you about before we finally circle back round to the imitation one. It belongs to my friend Sean. It lives in his parents' beach house, a place I’m lucky enough to regularly visit thanks to our scaredy boys' retreats, which I talked about in the first Stray Thoughts. Sean and Tom, my fellow scaredy boys, have a love of fire nearly equal to my own. We have started the habit of just randomly sending each other photos of fires whenever one of us finds ourselves sitting in front of one. It’s a good habit and one which brings me joy, not only because I get to see those delicious flames depicted in the pixels of my phone, but also because I know one of my friends is presently feeling full and happy, warm and safe, in front of their fire. I know they likely have a drink, and have had a moment to stare and contemplate the blaze, before then thinking of their friends and choosing to share the moment with both of them.

That’s good shit.

As for the beach house fireplace, things can get a little crazy there. I think having three pyromaniacs in the same house isn’t necessarily the best idea. Not only does the smoke alarm regularly go off when one of us, usually me, decides to have a bit of a play and give the fire a poke, but we also once lit it in summer when we were sweltering, just so we could feed our obsessive need for the flame. Otherwise, in the winter months, it is a treat. We’ll be on the couch watching movies or reading books and it will be off to the side of the room standing alone, black and proud and full of fire.

The one real feature of the dream house Holly and I hope to one day buy, is, and it should surprise none of you by this point, a fireplace. The rest is fairly negotiable, but we know we want that. But, who knows when that will be, so when I saw a small imitation fireplace at Kmart the other week, I stopped dead in my tracks. I probably considered if getting it was a good idea or just adding unneeded clutter to our house, not to mention eventual landfill, for probably around ten minutes before thinking fuck it, it’s her birthday. Even when giving it to her I couched the gift in words; telling her this one was a bit silly, and might be a bit shit.

Let me tell you, it is neither of those things.

I adore the cute little imitation fireplace. Whoever made it clearly went to great efforts to give it the true feel and design of an authentic fireplace, just in miniature. The colours and details are all right, the buttons are hidden behind a fake metal draw, and you can even adjust the heat and level of flames. It will surprise none of you that I want those fake flames at their absolute highest.

I set up the imitation fireplace in the corner of the living room near our house plants, plugged it in, turned it on, and was immediately delighted by just how perfect it looked. We were both giddy by its presence as thankfully Holly liked it as much as I did, meaning I didn’t entirely commit the sin of giving her a present that I really wanted for myself.

While it, of course, doesn’t quite hit the highs of a real fireplace, and lacks the enjoyable routine of building an actual fire, watching its fake flames and glowing plastic logs still manages to achieve that incredible feeling of peace and warmth and safety that a fireplace brings. It might be entirely artificial in make but the comfort and joy this strange little product now gives us is entirely real.

I don’t know why fire does elicit these emotions so strongly. It could be its visual white noise, or that it triggers something in the caveman part of our brains, or that usually if I’m sitting in front of a fire it means there is nothing else I need to do at that time, something which is rare. But, ultimately I don’t need to know, and truthfully I don’t particularly care. I just like fire, even, apparently, when it's fake.

One day, we want to own our own fireplace, but in the meantime, this imitation one will do just fine.

Thank you so much for reading these Stray Thoughts and until next time, please for the love of god get yourself a drink, maybe a book, and find some time to sit in front of a fire, real or otherwise.


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