Twilight Tarn and the Deceit of Rum

All Photos taken by my very talented French Fry Remi Chauvin:,

An incredulous snarl.  “Did you bring a torch?”  The man walked into the Mt Field ski lodge.  When he returned he handed out five tea candles to the boys.  Something was not right with these young men.  They wore only thin cotton jumpers in spite of the gathering autumnal gloom.  Their jeans and Dunlop Volleys were smattered with mud from the long haul up from the Lake Dobson car park.  The reek of booze was strong on their breath.  However what the man found most disturbing, as he would later tell his wife back in Hobart, was the laughter.  His sensible suggestion of a torch was greeted with something verging on derision.  He hustled his children into the car.  As he pulled away, the logo of a large Hobart private school flashed in the few rays of sunlight that were left.  “_______ is a great school!” one of them called, “wouldn’t be where I am today without those guys.”

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The boys hopped over some boulders to take photos of Lake Seal in the red glow of a forestry afternoon.  Their mood was good in spite of vicious hangovers.  Only a couple of hours of impressive speed and they would be toasting their toes in the old hut at Twilight Tarn.  But a sour moment came when they realised they had left the bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Gold in the car, an hours hike and three hundred metres below.

“This portends some terrible doom.”  Jacob Neil’son swilled the dregs of the last beer and groaned about a night with nothing but recycled teabags to stiffen their drinks.

“Never mind,” quoth Harold Hobart Hellybutt, the little renowned writer of the first half of two novellas. “We’ll get by on gumption alone.”

Meri Vauchin, the only half accomplished artisan of the three, sighed and put away his Hasselblad medium format camera.  This was no way to spend an evening.  Stuck in the wilderness with two half-baked writers trying to out-converse one another.  At least the forestry burn-offs were refracting red, gold and purple light all across the barren granite.  The rocks glowed as if soaked in blood or wine or spiced rum.  Or maybe a deadly cocktail of all three.

Later, as darkness found them staggering the last few hundred feet to the hut, Neil’son felt a creeping dread.  Something like walking out of a movie and feeling THE HORROR.  His mind was caught between this world and a world where people have their loving, innocent stomachs split open by strangers and wild beasts.  Shadows took on a darker darkness, hinting at brutality.  Fear crackled through usually dormant synapses.  A primal state of awareness, alert to a predatory and nefarious world.  His fragile grasp tightened.

“The horror, the horror”, Kurtz’s final words in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  They rolled around Neil’son’s mind.  Waves of paranoia.  Make it to the hut.  Then…

An insipid fire and lukewarm tea.  Five tea candles weakly lit a corner of twisted wood and stone.  There was irrational apportioning of blame for “The Rum Situation”.  A dark night’s sleep, jumping awake at the scraping night noises.  Murmured warnings, whispered threats.  And…

Dreams.  Dreams of a brightly lit room.  ‘100th Birthday’ balloons droop from the wall on silver and gold ribbon, slowly deflating.  They have reached a wrinkled, indestructable state.

“Are you cold?” asks Jessie Luckman.  Rheumy eyes cut through thick lenses.  A pioneering bushwalker summing up a boy in her retirement room.

“No I’m fine thankyou,” lies Neil’son, feeling disrobed.

“I like to keep things a little fresh.  You’ve already broken the first rule of journalism.  You’ve assumed that I actually used the hut.”

Damn, thinks Neil’son, one of those dreams where you go to school naked.  “Ah, yes.  Um… Did you know the people who built it?” checking discreetly to make sure he’s wearing pants.

“It was built by the Ski Club of Tasmania in 1927.  There were quite a number of them.  Cybil Sale.  Cee Why Bee…  Ida MacCauley.  Em Ay Cee capital Cee…  She was a very keen skier.  Charles Wessing.  Someone Hutchison. The women built the fireplace.  They carried all those big rocks.

“I took up skiing in 1938.  We would stay at the government huts at Lake Dobson.  They were simple but not too uncomfortable.  By then they had put a road through to Lake Fenton so the walk wasn’t so long.  Before, they would arrive on the train from Hobart, you caught the train back-then.  The ranger would carry all their skis and packs on horseback while they walked to the snow.  When the lakes froze over they would go skating.”

Neil’son’s gaze drifts out to the river which filters past the centenarian’s window.  Little flies circle on the surface.  Dancing.  Drifting music orchestrates the dance.  They wheel and spin in hope and lust, without any knowledge that their lives on earth are short beyond imagining.  Fearless, immortal, wearing skates.

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He is back.  Feeling like he has walked many miles.  Again standing by Twilight Tarn in the on-rushing dark.  But it is different.  The world is colder, newer.  The lake is a bed of white pearl.  Across it the music still crackles from a hand-crank gramophone perched on a stump by the hut.  The hut looks smaller and the forest around it has been slashed back to provide building material and firewood.  A light in the window is all welcome as the cold grows fangs.  “They called the tarn Twilight because they’d arrive there as the sun disappeared,” said a voice in Neil’son’s mind.  A group of men and women glided in twos and threes across the ice.  Inexplicably clothed in dinner suits and evening gowns, they spun a lazy roundelay.  The tracks of their skates left a figure like infinity drawn on infinity.

Neil’son had a strong feeling that he was supposed to be somewhere else so he walked away from the tarn and down the black, cold, wearisome path of darkness.  No sooner was he below the first ridge, and THE HORROR was back.  Not creeping this time but tearing at his clothes, spitting foul volleys in his mouth and eyes.  Stumbling, lost.  Where was the track?  He saw Hellybutt in front of him, grinning through his mountainous beard.  “Gumption,” he urged.  Fuck That! wailed Neil’son in his mind, we’re lost and we’ve no rum…

“It’s ignorance that makes people scared,” said Luckman in her room above the river.

Neil’son looks at scribbled black marks on his notepad.  He shakes the chill from his spine.  “Can you get a true wilderness experience in Tasmania these days?”

“No.  Where are you going to go?  These places, I call them the lungs of the earth, are over-loved.  Some development is purely for the money they get out of it.”

“Were you ever scared, during any of your adventures in the wilderness.”

“No, we’ve no wild animals here,” she chuckles.  “ It’s fear of what you don’t know.  Well, that’s for townies…”

The milky light came without knocking.  It revealed three rooms.  One was a rustic museum of ancient wooden skis, tin cans, cutlery green with age, bottles (one still holding the remains of an ancient port).  Sepia photographs were tacked to the walls.  The Tarn scoured with the tracks of grinning skaters.  The hut and lake in a frozen embrace in the winter of 1936.  A thread of smoke climbing from a chimney built by women long since dead.

“Yes, yes.  This is really very cool,” muttered Hellybutt.  Tea fumes curling into his chin forest.  “They’d bring everything they’d ever want from town and party up here in the wilderness.”

Gramophone, skis, ballgowns … rum, thought Neil’son ruefully.

“They used to walk here from the railway, miles and miles in the snow.  The ranger would bring all their gear up on a horse called Runic,” said Vauchin, his Cannon 5D Mark ii making pinprick beeps, sharpening the focus.

“I want a pet magpie called Runic,” said Hellybutt.  “He could sit on my shoulder while I walked around Salamanca.”

“There’s some kind of pioneering spirit in these photographs that is just gone,” said Neil’son.  “That man at the ski lodge, I think he may have despised us.”

“And all because we weren’t battered in goretex,” agreed Hellybutt.

Just because you’re going into the mountains doesn’t mean you’ve got to dress like an idiot, thought Vauchin.  He zipped up his leather jacket and threw a blue-black-check merino scarf louchely across his neck.  “Let’s go take some photos, this fog is starting to lift.”

Outside, the tepid sun was indeed trying to burn off the night mist.  All was silent except for the flickering leaf shutter on Vauchin’s Hasselblad.  The tarn was calm, cold but unfrozen.  Neil’son’s cigarette smoke mingled with the shreds of mist as they spiraled to the lake’s surface.  The filaments wound in an elegant, drunken formation and swept across the water.  There was unbridled joy in that frictionless Highland fling.  The reel grew faster and faster as the beat of the day increased.  Then the dancers disappeared, disbanded by the breeze.

Neil’son shivered, the wraiths of past winters still sliding before his eyes.  Hellybutt wondered at the literary sound of the clinking, empty beer bottles in Vauchin’s knapsack.  Vauchin smiled, wound back the film on the Hassleblad, and shifted the sloshing weight of the rum bottle on his shoulder.

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