A Republic Serial in Twelve Chapters
short story by Roger Stitson
We are fading in from laborious hours to an old, familiar adventure: to monochrome. To the black and white certainties of a page, a B-grade script, the open screen of our Coaltown Cinema, to the monochrome low budget of good and evil. And to other eras — past and maybe future — where lovers should not kiss, if ever, till The End, and where men of that heroic ilk wear light grey hats that never seem to fall in battle against the desperadoes, and their proud young women laugh for joy in victory at last, and fade...
Chapter One: Outlaw Country
Summer, early 1956. Outside the sun beats down on the bust of General Baker-Baird, Coaltown’s founding father. The Flicker Palace foyer is deserted, silent save for a distant, rousing score of trumpeting march music and the click of three hundred florins totted up by Mabel in her box office. The doors leading to the inner auditorium are flung open; a small, green-faced boy with chocolate icecream dripping from his collar runs, ill, toward the gentlemen’s washroom.
While the doors are apart, music, shouting children and the regimented, rhythmic thunder of their feet on the wooden cinema floor waft through the foyer, presage of the Youth Revolution. Mabel, totting the florins, shakes her head.
The doors swing shut. Darkness. Inside the Palace a band of masked horsemen sweeps across the screen, singing, “We ride with the wind and the rain in our hair,” Gunblasters of the Great South Land, final chapter.
Seated centre front row where they miss nothing of the son et lumiere, but are occasionally the targets of lolly missiles projected from the anonymous rear, are Robert, Jimmy, and their friend Susan Hart, daughter of Coaltown’s 1955 premiership Australian Rules football coach. Jimmy is rubbing his steamy glasses, wondering aloud upon the identity of Grinning Skull, overlord of the Frontier Anti-Republican Force.
“Difficult to guess,” whispers Robert. “It may be Simpson the businessman. Or on the other hand — ”
“Shh!” interrupts Susan Hart. “Be quiet!”
Susan Hart is the chief film reviewer for Monday morning Creative English lessons presided over by Mr Chalk, who suspects she has a future in the newspapers far away from Coaltown — provided no local coalman might claim her at eighteen...
Gunblasters. Settling down into their seats, into the intriguing demi-world of scratched vertical lines down a mile of celluloid. Until the picture frame, the title captions, fly sideways off the screen, the light blows out and the soundtrack winds down to a gurgling grunt. Dying, thinks Robert, like a record on Grandfather’s sprung gramophone. He rises to his feet. Turning to inspect the distant, elevated projector box, through whose port-holes he discerns a human shadow clawing at the mechanicals (gloved hand of a villain manipulating his cyclotrode ray), he is knocked to the floor by someone’s well-aimed icecream cone.
Lost in the darkness, hungry Fat Jones lumbers blindly toward the stricken body.
Chapter Two: The Masked Avenger
... Oh, I am drowning in icecream on the ocean floor.
Down here the tips of Susan Hart’s buckled shoes are sharp. From them proudly rise the deep blue hooping of football socks worn by the Coaltown Miners every wintry Saturday, gift-wrapped for her by the coach on Christmas Eve, high summer, cicadas whirring in the grass outside the flywired window... And over the thunderous sound of feet and cracking of cap shooters, she says, Get off him! to Fat Jones. He replies that the final reel of Gunblasters has been stolen! Our projectionist bumped on the head by a statuette of General Baker-Baird!
Leaping from the stinking ocean floor, free of Fat Jones and gravity, I shout, Let us retrieve that chapter from the villains! Donning masks, my friends and I are sprinting through the dark Flicker Palace, along the centre aisle, to the exit...
Look! shout the patrons, It’s Captain Coaldust! Jim Spectacles! Suzy Bluesocks, too!
... At the base of the empty picture screen a plump figure, emptying wind from his rollicking tummy, pops another aniseed ball between his teeth.
And the outer doors are opening.
Chapter Three: Descending Doom
In the foyer Captain Coaldust confronts an identical pair of gangsters in double-breasted suits, circa the fashions of 1943, running down the staircase juggling machine-guns and a reel of unspooling celluloid.
“You blockheads!” shrieks a hunched, skeletal creature lurking near the Flicker Palace snack bar. “If one frame of Chapter Twelve is left behind I’ll disintegrate the two of you!”
“Drop that serial, or else!” orders the Captain.
But taking shelter behind a bullet-proof poster-board of Hoppy Rides Again, I haven’t guessed on the robed creature’s evil. Extracting a cyclotrode firearm from his sleeves, he is projecting a ray of something hot and hideous toward the ceiling. Too late, down comes the melting chandelier, the pride of Coaltown’s fund-raising auxiliary, upon myself.
Chapter Four: The Deadly Fog
... Whereupon the Captain dives over the tiles with olympian alacrity... And the chandelier has missed its mark, though crystal shards spike the poster through Hoppy’s ten gallon hat.
The cackling arch-criminal flees with his myrmidons into the sunlight, Gunblaster’s fragile celluloid slithering after them, a ribbon of frustrated continuities, down the steps and away to an avenue of elms out of sight. Where Her Majesty once rode through constant bunting on her journey years ago to the Outer Dominions of Great South Land. Under the shadow of General Baker-Baird, Suzy Bluesocks and I waved miniature patriot flags that day .
Seconds later a dark Buick accelerates past the entrance.
“What’s the meaning of this destruction, Captain Coaldust?” Stalking up the steps to the foyer, an angry gentleman with a moustache, the assistant manager of the Coaltown Cinema, Mr Colin Hitler, permanent Nineteenth Man under the famous coach, and doomed in love with Mabel.
“No time for chat, Mr Hitler...”
Engrossed, the Captain is examining a calling card on the snack bar: Death to the mooted Republic. Yours Truly, Son of Grinning Skull. Then the words disappear into a whiff of sulphur on the palm of his hand.
Departing the Flicker Palace, Captain Coaldust is seated behind the wheel of a powerful early-model Holden, yet barely one hundred yards has he driven, when it fills with a foul, green fog.
One hand gripping my throat, I’m wrestling the steering wheel; stubbornly, under the guidance of a remote-control device, the Holden careers at high speed toward Ecclesiastes Smythe’s night-cart and Job the gelding.
Chapter Five: [The Invisible Victim]
... Finding the remote control device disguised as a rubber spider on the dashboard, Captain Coaldust bites the insect in half.
He gains the wheel, lowers the window and continues, sucking fresh air, in pursuit of the speeding Buick.
And the words of Ecclesiastes Smythe ring in my ears, Whoa, Job! Is there anything whereof it may be said, see, this is new? (1:10)
... Pock, pock, last night under the coach’s porch globe Suzy Bluesocks twirled a tennis racquet: Hello, I said, by the fence. Between us a cicada intervened upon both the summer evening and the radio crackling from the Bluesock livingroom, For Those In Love And Those Who Can Remember. Mr Chalk, unfamiliar in a polo shirt, rounded the corner of a lane, arm in arm with someone laughing, intoning in that city voice of his, Good evening, Captain Coaldust. I folded my Disneys from view under my arm. Anyone for tennis, Miss Bluesocks? he enquired.
[A voice from somewhere above the ocean floor: “I think Robert’s asphyxiating!”]
Chapter Six: The Slave Collar
... Storming along Power Station Track toward Coaltown’s electricity-generating complex. Bullets fired from the gangsters are flying past the Captain’s elbow. Exhaust and dust obscure his sight. The Buick races ahead.
Out of the gloom where the Track bends, the Hand of Man arises, His works, and the scream of a siren over the treetops, briquette factory of belching stacks, power station, and beyond, from a mighty dredged hole of burden and blue Chesty Bond singlets: the maw-hungry, Coaltown Open Cut and, I trust, not the environment of my wage-earning future.
Chapter Seven: Blazing Fury
... The Captain accelerates away. Soon he skids to a halt behind the dark Buick, whose occupants have run through a hatchway into the hub of the Great South Land — the rumbling Coaltown power station. Scarf flying, monogrammed flak jacket a-glint, sprinting on his trooper boots through the endless demi-light of labour, past gauges, dials, locks and wheels, and Hands who crouch boiler-suited on stools, in chase of two shadows, machine guns and celluloid, flitting along the edge of a distant generator. Until...
The Son of Grinning Skull! Unseen, commandeering the air waves from a privately-financed laboratory, he cackles an order to the gangsters, “Destroy that monochrome Republican climax! Hurl it into the furnace!”
Wait! I implore, thinking quickly. Consider birthrights, and the pleasures you’re denying our unborn generations...
“It’s that meddling Baby Boomer again!” roars Skull. “Finish him off, you blockheads!”
Gunfire ricocheting around my nose, I observe Chapter Twelve, thrown onto the coal fuel-conveyer belt by Skull’s henchmen, thundering into an open boiler furnace.
Chapter Eight: Take Off That Mask
... As the giggling gangsters make for the exit, Captain Coaldust throws a grappling hook, capturing the reel of film spilling off the conveyer belt...
Good work, I remark to myself. Jim Spectacles and I have spent years practising accuracy, lobbing Kooka cricket balls from the boundary to Suzy Bluesocks gloved over the centre-wicket dustbin. Applauded, once, by the coach, in thongs during the Australian Rules off-season, walking Old Wal the family labrador who was later to be electrocuted during a wind storm, urinating on a collapsed live wire. Inconsolable for two days, Suzy Bluesocks, whom I’d not seen cry before, dabbed her nose into my handkerchief the moment we lowered Old Wal, his private parts singed, into the coal-encrusted, Great South Land earth, and never cried again.
Celluloid of dreams now in his grasp, Captain Coaldust salutes the boiler-suited Foot Soldiers of Industry.
“Don’t forget to punch the clock on the way out!” shouts one of their number, a renowned scallywag on the shop floor.
“Heh, heh, heh.” Effecting a nervous chuckle, the Captain races out of the Coaltown power station to discover all four of his car tyres deflated on the tarmac. The Holden’s bonnet is raised. One criminal dangles a set of ruined distributor leads, his twin is smashing a rotor button underfoot.
And they are advancing upon me, raising their machine guns, boxing me into a dead end. Show us who you are, Captain Coaldust! they speak in unison. Take off that mask!
Chapter Nine: Stratosphere Invaders
... Suddenly! The villains are scattering under the snorts and flailing hoofs of Job the night-cart horse! Having bolted from Coaltown, the gelding has followed the Captain along Power Station Track... “Whoa, Job!” shouts Ecclesiastes Smythe. “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour!” (4:9)
Labour? Fearful word. The Captain is running free with Chapter Twelve, hurdling a fence into the neighbouring aerodrome. Here, a small and flimsy two-seater craft is warming up on the runway.
... Take me to the Flicker Palace, Bob! "Jump right in, sir", invites the pilot, a dare-devil stuntsman knocking around the traps after two world wars, a spot of crop-dusting and some Boys’ Own films for far-away Republic Studios.
Back-firing we clear the fence by a half-wheel, dipping our wings to Job and the dunny man galloping away up the Coaltown Track. A string of bullets pierces our cabin door, passing through the roof into space; of no consequence, for we are rising high with geese and eagles over Industrial Valley, the Open Cut and the Hand of Man...
... Up here the engine’s drone induces a spell of eternity. Easy to believe that nothing human around Coaltown and its Works would matter; except that when the motor coughs we are glad for the fuel line. Underneath us, like cracked matchboxes set apart from the scale model of Coaltown, the settlement of Great South Land’s Indigenes passes by in our shadow, waiting for their day.
“What the hell!” gasps Bob. A gigantic, black-metal pterodactyl flying machine is descending from out of the clouds, expunging sunlight with a roar!
“It’s the Son of Grinning Skull!” shouts Captain Coaldust.
Skull’s voice crackles through the air on loud speakers, “The following is for Those In Love And Those Who Can Remember, you little trouble-maker!”
Pock, pock. From the saurian’s metal heart, flash of a super cyclotrode.
Chapter Ten: Fatal Dive
... Bob flips the Cessna over the pterodactyl flying machine, up out of the line of fire.
Tapping the pilot on the shoulder, Captain Coaldust points to a ten-pound bag of phosphate, used for crop dusting, on the floor behind him.
“Dare we?” he enquires.
“Old hat, mate!” Bob tosses him a devil-may-care thumb’s up sign. “Remember that sequence in The Phantom Squadron of ’34? One of mine, and Republic’s finest!”
Slinging the phosphate bag over his back Captain Coaldust climbs outside — braving a storm of sunny wind and oil fumes — onto the aircraft’s wobbling struts.
Bob swoops; the Captain jumps into space — a second later sprawling against the rear expanse of the pterodactyl’s wing. The noise is deafening. He crawls across to the fuselage, unscrews a small, projecting metal cap, pours all the phosphate from the bag into the enemy’s fuel chute, then catches hold of a ladder lowered from the Cessna by Bob, lifting away and up...
Away and up, retrieving a Kooka ball from the house roof a week after Hurricane Harry had ripped down live wires and burnt Old Wal. Sunny Christmas Eve: wondering if I was invincible, I stretched a hand overhead to touch a power cable, and somehow went on living! But Suzy Bluesocks (who never swore) turned pale in the face; unusual, for one of her great-grandfathers was said to be an Indigene — swearing at me on the footpath, causing my relatives to chide her through the kitchen window.
Sweating I descended from the roof. Then returned to prise the forgotten Kooka out of the drainpipe. By the time I’d returned to earth the second time Suzy Bluesocks had gone home without saying Goodbye, have a merry Christmas tomorrow.
“... You really are a swine, Captain Coaldust!” screams the Son of Grinning Skull, as his giant black aircraft, now under the influence of phosphate, zig-zags haphazardly around the sky.
Yet, while I am half-way up the Cessna ladder, with one lucky shot Skull’s cyclotrode suddenly melts our propeller blades! Bob, the celluloid and myself are plunging toward the bony earth of Coaltown’s cemetery.
Chapter Eleven: Den Of The Beast
Cutting the engine Bob jerks the joystick! The Cessna, no longer harassed by Skull’s ruined pterodactyl machine, spirals gently on the breezes, lowering over the Coaltown Flicker Palace.
“Superb, Bob!” congratulates the Captain.
Mere yards over the Palace roof, the ladder slips away from his fingers. He alights near the stairwell, catching the reel of film thrown by Bob, who kick-starts the Cessna, bounding away for a safe landing on Boiler Cooler Lake.
Zing! Bullets are flying. Revving their dark Buick, Spic and Span have arrived back in town, followed closely by Job, rearing on his hind legs, splashing the contents of Mr Smythe’s night-cart over the Buick’s duco.
“Get out of the way, you stupid nag!” they scream in unison.
“Whoa, Job!” shouts Ecclesiastes Smythe, “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong... but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (9:11)
Sudden crack of a stockwhip! The gangsters recoil. From the roof Captain Coaldust spies Suzy Bluesocks and trustworthy Jim Spectacles, whips in hand and Great South Land country-and-western hats angled on their heads, advancing from the Palace singing Hi-Yi Yippee-Yi Yay.
... For it was only last weekend that Black Stump Bluey and his Musical Cattle Duffers, having parked their panel vans and animal floats on the outskirts, galloped into Coaltown on brumbies, rousing Job from his gelding sleep. Black Stump Bluey presented Suzy Bluesocks with a jillaroo hat on Big Saturday Rodeo Night after she warbled Hi-Yi Yippee with him in the bear pit.
Miss Suzy, you have the prettiest dark eyes in old Coaltown, sang Black Stump with a flaring hairy nostril which I, out of the spotlight with Jim Spectacles, observed from the side. She whooped her hat, the jillaroo, bouncing down beside her littlest sister in the front row and a halo of light, holding hands...
“Gunblasters or our money back!” The far-off patrons in the auditorium are stamping their feet on the boards.
Captain Coaldust smiles. He runs down the stairwell, but in the darkness stumbles over a half-open trapdoor. Extracting a pen-torch from his monogrammed belt, he peers down into a secret cavern flecked with boulders of coal; deep cavern, not only carved into the bowels of the Flicker Palace, but extending into night under all Coaltown. And in the flare of light, what does he see?
Skull’s lair! An immense, silent laboratory and tele-radio studio. In a hangar, on a floating lift-off pad, a pterodactyl flying machine, Mark Two. Five cyclotrodes under construction await testing on the workshop benches. A skull mask of alien metal fabric hangs, swaying, upon a silver doorknob.
Captain Coaldust is creeping down a flight of steps ignorant of a human shape hunched in darkness and a ballooning cloak, ensconced behind a cupboard, with an oxy-acetylene nozzle hissing in one hand. And as the Captain tiptoes past, the creature springs from behind the cupboard.
“Farewell at last, young Coaldust, and to your mooted Republic!”
Toward my unpocked face his burning jet of gas flares up, up.
Final Chapter: Trail Of Tyranny
... But the oxy-torch cylinder has run out of gas!
Exchanging punches, and in a frenzy of hand-to-hand costumes, up and down the laboratory they brawl, smashing test-tubes, chipping paint off the televisual monitor, over-turning and breaking art-deco furniture as though it were balsa-wood.
“The question is,” pants Skull, switching on a nearby cyclotrode, “who are you, Captain Ratbag?” With a high-voltage whine the cyclotrode’s ray swings around the cavern toward Captain Coaldust, and the walls begin to melt.
Distantly, an echo... Hi-yi yippee, we ride with the wind and the rain!
Suzy Bluesocks cracking her stockwhip, followed by Jim Spectacles and Ecclesiastes Smythe clattering down the steps. Distracted by the intrusion, the Son of Grinning Skull trips over his cloak and falls into an underground lake where the pterodactyl lift-off pad floats. Suzy Bluesocks pulls the bedraggled criminal out of the water with her whip.
“Now for the unmasking!” shouts the Captain and, stooping to conquer, he rips off Skull’s disguise.
“It’s — it’s Mr Colin Hitler, Assistant Manager of the Coaltown Flicker Palace!”
“I would never have dreamed!” gasps Jim Spectacles, turning off the cyclotrode.
Water dribbling down his chin, Mr Colin Hitler sneers, “You radical little whipper-snapper!”
Suzy Bluesocks embraces the Captain. “We did it! We’ve saved Great South Land for the mooted Republic without so much as a spilt drop of blood or a four-letter word! It is possible, no matter what they say.”
“XXXX!” snarls Mr Colin Hitler.
Impetuous, Suzy Bluesocks is kissing Captain Coaldust on the lips. And as he swoons away, Job neighs outside, and the hushed voice of Ecclesiastes Smythe is heard in the background: “Whoa, Job! All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.” (7:23)
... On the floor of the Coaltown Flicker Palace, Robert opens his eyes... Susan Hart is caressing his brow. Helpless, he lies in her tanned arms, and as the lights are lowering again she kisses him under the seat.
“Jim Spectacles, don’t let Mr Hitler escape from custody!” he moans.
Wiping his glasses, Jimmy mumbles, “Robert’s mad about the Nazis.”
“Hubba hubba!” Fat Jones swallows an aniseed ball.
“Why don’t you just go away!” blurts Susan Hart. “Can’t you see — ”
Darkness. Once more they are settling into their seats. Masked horsemen sweep across the screen, singing, “We ride with the wind and the rain in our hair...”
“Is this love?” thinks Robert.
At the rear of the Palace the doors open. A boy has walked from the foyer into a montage of silvery air and space, wiping chocolate icecream off his collar. The doors swing back. Mabel is locking the afternoon’s proceeds into a cash box. She glances up to see Col Hinkler, Cinema Manager and her fiancé of seven years, arriving in a dark sedan, hat in hand skipping up the steps to greet her. Over his shoulder-pads the sun beats on the late General and the extent of Great South Land, carried on a gust of cap-shooters and cheering from the Coaltown Flicker Palace.
We are fading out from old monochrome adventures and black and white certainties to the present. Susan will soon be home from her Indigenes Voice desk at City Reporter. Our television set is silent. Under it, a video player. A disk. A Republic serial in twelve chapters — to be continued... Fading in to colour.
* * * * *
To the Reader: The twelve chapter titles in this story are from the following matinee serials produced by Republic Studios, U.S.A., 1942-1949: The Crimson Ghost; King of the Rocket Men; Son of Zorro; Spy Smasher; Zorro’s Black Whip.
The tale is one of some short stories I have written about my home town of Yallourn, in the industrial and electricity-generating Latrobe Valley of Victoria. It is a town that no longer exists, having been scraped away many years ago by the Hand of Man for the brown coal lying not so deep beneath the surface.
As may be guessed the story was written during the run-up to the Australian Republic referendum, and has since been slightly revised (as has the date for the mooted republic).
* * * * *
A Republic Serial in Twelve Chapters
(revised 2004, 2015) is Copyright © R.M.Stitson, 2004, 2015.