HIGHLY COMMENDED 2020
SCAB is the story of a young policeman caught up in the 1923 riots and police strikes in Melbourne, Australia. SCAB received the Highly Commended Award and was published in the 2020 Stringybark short stories anthology, Close To Heaven. This story is the first of many derived from Kendrea’s family history research, and is also her first award-winning historical fiction short story.
“Who ya got in the Cup, Georgie?” Burges asked, still wearing his civvies.
“Bitalli mate, what about you?” Rodier replied.
“Drongo, I’m going for Drongo. He hasn’t won a thing yet, but he’s got a crazy new jockey. Reckon that horse’ll be famous soon,” Burges replied. “You gonna sit-in tonight?”
Rodier did up the top button of his jacket at the collar. He looked over to his left, brushed unseen lint off his shoulder-board and straightened his jacket with a downward tug at the front.
Burges continued, “Did ya hear Brookes in the assembly hall last night? No spooks, pay-rise and pension for all!” He punched his fist in the air.
“Look,” Rodier replied, “I don’t like the spooks either and the pay’s shit, but it’s still pay!” He spread both hands out, palms facing Burges, “Nicholson will discharge us if we’re not on duty. I need the bloody money.”
“Christ George. They won’t ditch us all and they’ll put the 29 back on when they hear we’re all walkin’ out,” Burges said.
Rodier shrugged, but Burges moved closer, “And if they keep the f**kin’ spooks they’ll get what they deserve. You know they dobbed in Browne and Cornish last night for drinking tea, ten bloody minutes before knock-off!”
“I heard. But I saw a line of blokes volunteering for the Specials at the town hall,” said Rodier bending down to wipe his boots with a cloth, “they’re gonna replace all the strikers.”
“Don’t bother with ya boots George,” Burges said, attempting to pull him up by the shoulder. “Come to the meeting.”
Rodier pushed Burges’ hand off and stood up, grabbed his helmet, baton and beat-book, and walked away.
“Scab,” Burges spat after him and several civvy-clad constables stared as Rodier headed for the parade ground.
Examiner, headlines November 7th, 1923:
Bitalli’s Melbourne Cup.
A Favourite Wins After 13 Years.
Western Mail, November 8th, 1923:
… the Victorian police force has been seething with discontent, disputes continually occurring regarding working conditions and pay. Recently the Chief Commissioner (Mr. Nicholson) reinstituted a system of supervision, by which inspections of the night patrols and police in Melbourne were carried out by senior constables in plain clothes [spooks] The men strongly objected to this “espionage” … [and] the night quota refused to commence duty unless the plain clothes supervisors were withdrawn …
The Argus, December 15th 1923:
Police Who Stood Fast
Reward for Loyalty
Members of the police force in the metropolitan area yesterday received in addition to their ordinary pay, £6/4/10 each, portion of The Argus fund raised to reward the loyalty of men who refused to join the police mutineers …
634 Discharges from Force
In the Victorian “Police Gazette” issued Yesterday appear the names of 634 men who refused duty and have been discharged from the police force …
Sergeant Taylor stood in the gas lamp glow of the parade ground at the Russell Street Police Headquarters. His breath misted in the light as he rubbed his hands together and stamped his feet, watching the entryway clock. Fine drizzle dampened his overcoat. The bluestone Italianate-style police building wrapped around the central parade ground with return verandas over the ground-floors. Taylor glanced at the doorway of the police barracks. Constable George Rodier stepped through the door, dodging a drip of water from the overhanging veranda. He walked onto the empty parade ground and took first muster position facing the Sergeant.
The clock chimed 10:00pm.
Taylor ticked off one name out of thirty on his list and looked directly into Rodier’s eyes. “They’re going to roast you for this,” he said, nodding towards the assembly hall. “Take traffic at Bourke and Swanston. You didn’t strike last night?”
“No Sir,” Rodier replied.
“Was that your sister we found in the North Fitzroy Gardens the other night with the kids?” Taylor asked.
“Yes Sir, I’m looking after them. Her old man’s in the Fitzroy lock up for another week,” Rodier said, tugging at his collar.
“Right. Get moving then,” Taylor said.
Rodier headed for the bicycle racks. Distant voices from the assembly hall punctured the air with a chorused “aye”. He heard Taylor’s voice calling the men out to muster, a “f**k off” from Brookes, and a cheer from the throng.
Rodier pedalled his Malvern Star with sweeping strides out of the barracks. Turning right onto Little Bourke Street, he stood-up off the seat as the bicycle tyres bumped over the cable tram tracks. The four storey Exford Hotel on the corner heaved with custom, barely containing its patrons who spilled onto the street in a flailing drunken mass. The hotel’s Edwardian windows lined up, alert, like battle-ready soldiers assessing the scene. Three men stood smoking under a dull gas streetlight watching the mob at the hotel and watching the policeman ride straight past them. Rodier picked up speed.
On the footpath of Little Bourke Street, a grubby-faced boy reached to pick up a cigarette tin — his mother dragged him off and he stumbled as they hurried up the cobblestone alley lined by out-houses and haphazard fencing. These hidden slums are barely noticeable from the wide city streets, but they reminded Rodier of his sister and her six children alone in the gardens at night. Thank God for Cornish, anything could have happened if he hadn’t found them on his beat.
Rodier turned left onto Swanston Street where most of the shops were boarded up in anticipation of trouble. The city block was ablaze with new electric streetlights which not only illuminated the huge shop fronts of department stores touting “The Biggest Thing in Melbourne” and “Glass, China, Crockery, Fancy Goods”, but also highlighted the crowds at the Bourke Street intersection.
The cable trams were backed up on Swanston Street and when Rodier passed by, he heard a yell: “Hey, there’s a copper on duty!” Then laughter and someone else called out, “Good onya mate.”
The night-air clamoured with intensity as Rodier dodged the bike between people massing over the road. He dismounted and dropped it, just as a bottle smashed on the ground in front of him.
Twenty men rocked a tram car in its tracks, building momentum alarmingly. Rodier could see the drained faces of the conductor and gripman, still on the tram. The fare satchel hung over the conductor’s shoulder, he was trying to cover it with his coat and hold onto the standing pole as the tram tilted.
A loud whoop echoed through the air as a bunch of special constables, armed with batons and sticks, ran full pelt at the hooligans rocking the tram. Rodier sprinted. Baton aloft he hit the marauding mob, swinging at the closest rioter who shrank away at the sight of the uniform. The collective thudding noises of batons connecting with ears, noses and skulls sent fear through the larrikin throng: men staggered, holding their stomachs, others bent double as blood ran from their faces onto the street.
A small man rode the shoulders of a bigger man, both yelling excitedly. The small man held a burning rag and waved it above his head like a flag. He was trying to grab the railing on the roof of the cable tram, but Rodier caught him by the seat of his trousers and pulled him backwards. The small man crashed to the ground and landed awkwardly, legs splayed and screaming. The big man went to punch Rodier but missed as the policeman bent to move the man on the ground away from the brawl. Rodier grunted in response to a kick in the back—he looked up to see the big man melting back into the melee.
“Me leg, me leg,” cried the small man.
“Why d’ya do that?” Rodier shouted as he lifted him to his feet, “The mob are toppling that tram and you’re trying to get on it?”
“God, me leg. Watch it,” the man wailed, leaning heavily on Rodier. The man’s leg hung limp, dragging like a dead weight in every step he took.
The Specials were clearing up the tomfoolery at the tram, but there was an uproar at the Myer Emporium nearby and crowds rushed past, attracted by the sudden commotion.
“We’re going to the Town Hall,” Rodier said, “there were a few doctors there last night.”
“How am I gonna ride in the Cup on Tuesday?” The man cried, “I’m the last chance for that idiot Drongo.”
“You’re the idiot mate, not the horse,” Rodier replied.