Tough Times

Do you Dare...Let a girl join your cricket team? Fight for your friends? Risk everything to save your family?

Tough Times is a thrilling historical adventure for children aged 8–12. Set in inner Melbourne during the Great Depression, this action-packed story follows Tom and his mates as they battle to save Tom’s family from getting evicted. But they’ve got an awful lot to contend with along the way: debt collectors, rival gangs, snooty dog owners and a murderous billy goat!

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It was a Monday afternoon in early November, and Tom Parker was waiting for the rest of the Daredevils to show up for their after-school cricket match. Their pitch was a narrow paved lane that ran behind a row of terrace houses – there were hundreds of alleyways just like it all over the Fitzroy area – and instead of a real six- stitcher they were using an old tennis ball that Fungus had chewed on too many times.

Right now Fungus was standing eagerly at mid-on, desperately waiting for the game to start so he could take back the ball. A widening pool of dribble was forming on the grey bricks underneath his dangling tongue.

No one was sure what mix of dogs Fungus was, but everyone agreed that he was the ugliest animal in Melbourne, if not all of Australia. He had a small, squat body, stumpy legs, a short sausage-like tail, and matted tufts of grey fur that wouldn’t have been out of place on an old pirate’s chin. His eyes bulged, his ears stuck out at lopsided angles, his nose looked like someone had pushed it in with a thumb, and his extraordinarily long pink tongue was almost always drooping out of one side of his mouth, often lying curled up on the ground when he slept. It was Tom’s dad who had christened him Fungus, because he was ‘a constant bloomin’ irritation underfoot’.

Samson was the first of the other Daredevils to arrive. Samson’s real name was Stanley, but everyone called him Samson because he was the exact opposite of the strong man from the Bible. He was so skinny that he could barely walk down Brunswick Street on a windy day without getting blown halfway down the street.

‘Took your time!’ said Tom, as Samson moved into his usual place behind the kerosene tin the Daredevils used as a wicket.

Samson shrugged. ‘Had to chop some wood for Mum,’ he said. He shivered slightly and adjusted his tattered grey pullover. The start of summer was only a month away, but – as was often the case in Melbourne – the weather had been seesawing between incredibly warm and miserably cold.

‘Did you know that baby eels are called elvers?’ Samson pushed back his glasses, which had snapped during a game of paper football a few months earlier and were now held together with tape. His father had died in the Spanish Flu outbreak just before Samson was born, so he lived alone with his mum in a tiny ramshackle cottage. Samson’s hand-me-down clothes were all three sizes too big and full of moth holes, his yellow hair was always clipped short to keep out nits (with mixed success) and he wore the ugly white canvas shoes the government gave to people who couldn’t afford their own, which was lots of people nowadays. Tom’s dad had tried to explain it a few times, but Tom still didn’t quite understand why everything had become so bad and so many people were struggling or hungry or homeless. Tom’s family was pretty poor, but compared to Samson they were living like King George himself.

‘Elvers, eh?’ said Tom.

‘Yep, and some of ’em can grow up to thirteen feet long! Imagine pulling one of those out of Merri Creek!’

Tom knew that when Samson’s mother had too much to drink, he would go to the Fitzroy Library and read the encyclopedia for hours on end. He was only up to the ‘E’ volume, but he already knew more than the other two Daredevils put together.

Tom glanced up as a familiar figure rounded the corner of the laneway holding a splintered cricket bat. ‘Here comes Frank,’ he said.

‘Cripes,’ said Samson. ‘Who’s he got with him?’

Frank Moody was the leader of the Daredevils and Tom’s best friend. Tall and strong with thick curly hair and permanently grubby knees, he was the neighbourhood’s best football player as well as an excellent batsman. But today he looked like he’d been bowled for a duck as he slouched along, head down, next to a dark-haired girl Tom had never seen before.

Samson whistled as Frank and the girl walked towards them. ‘Oooh, Frank, who’s your sweetheart?’

‘Shut up, Samson,’ snapped Frank. ‘She’s my stupid cousin.’

‘You’re the stupid one,’ said the girl, before smiling widely at Tom and Samson. ‘Hello. I’m Joan.’

Samson grunted suspiciously, while Tom gave a cautious nod. He didn’t have much to do with girls his own age. They had their separate playground and shelter shed at school, and most of them thought the Daredevils were dirty and smelly and rough (which, to be fair, they often were).

‘My uncle Jim’s sick,’ said Frank, rubbing the back of his neck. ‘So Joan’s come down from the country to live with us for a while. Dunno why she couldn’t have found some other family to annoy.’

Joan stuck out her lip and pretended she was about to cry. ‘Aww, poor baby. You’re just mad ’cos you have to sleep in the stairwell now I’ve got your old room.’

‘Am not!’ said Frank defiantly. ‘I like sleeping in the stairwell. I just don’t want another silly shrieking girl in the house. Honestly, they’re like a flock of bloomin’ parrots sometimes.’

Frank lived with his parents and five older sisters above his dad’s barber shop on Gertrude Street. Unlike a lot of shopkeepers, Frank’s father was still getting plenty of customers. Tom supposed that even these tough times – the Depression, they were calling it – couldn’t stop people’s hair from growing.

Frank took a practice swing with the bat. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘I get to be Don Bradman.’

Samson groaned. ‘You’re The Don every time,’ he said.

‘That’s ’cos I’m the best batsman. And Tom’s the fastest bowler, so he’s Tim Wall. You can be Douglas Jardine.’

Samson looked disgusted. ‘I don’t wanna be Jardine. He’s English!’

‘Well then you can just jolly well be yourself,’ said Frank. ‘Stanley Smith, local nobody.’

‘What about me?’ said Joan.

Frank frowned. ‘You can sit and watch,’ he said. ‘Or even better, go home. Shouldn’t you be baking scones or making doilies with the other girls?’

Joan shook her head. ‘I’d rather do something fun. I can catch yabbies, you know. And I once climbed a tree that was so high there was a wedge-tailed eagle living at the top. It got some sort of surprise when it saw me, I can tell you.’

‘So you can climb a tree,’ said Frank. ‘Big deal. Everyone knows girls can’t play cricket.’

‘Course we can,’ said Joan. ‘I once made a century in the top paddock at home.’

‘Well, you’re not playing with us,’ said Frank.

‘That’s only ’cos you know I’m better than you!’ said Joan.

Frank snorted. Tom leaned over to whisper in his ear. ‘Maybe Joan should field,’ he said. ‘Fungus isn’t exactly quick to give the ball back, you know.’

That was saying something – once Fungus got his teeth around the ball, he would usually lead the others up and down the laneway for a good ten minutes before it was returned to the bowler, dripping with slime.

Frank sighed. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Joan, you can field. But this doesn’t mean you’re part of the gang. Girls aren’t allowed in the Daredevils.’

Joan grumbled loudly, but took her place next to Fungus at mid-on. ‘What an adorable dog!’ she exclaimed, leaning down to rub the odd tufts around Fungus’s neck that passed for fur. Tom and Frank exchanged a glance – Fungus had been called a lot of things, but ‘adorable’ certainly wasn’t one of them.

‘Let’s play,’ said Frank, taking guard in front of the kerosene tin.

Tom took his run-up and sent a fast full-pitch down towards the stumps. Frank swung hard and connected with the ball, which ricocheted off Mrs Palmer’s back fence and over Tom’s head.

‘Mine!’ called Joan, running forward and sticking out one hand to catch it easily.

Samson cheered, and Tom couldn’t resist cracking a smile, but Frank was furious. ‘That was all luck,’ he said. ‘If only that lousy fence wasn’t there . . .’

Joan casually tossed the ball up in the air and caught it again. ‘Tough luck,’ she said. ‘My bat.’

‘Oh no you don’t,’ said Frank. ‘I said you were allowed to field, not bat. Everyone knows girls can’t bat. You couldn’t knock the top off a rice pudding.’

Joan stopped tossing the ball and glared at Frank. ‘At least I wouldn’t knock it straight to the fielder.’

Frank frowned. ‘All right. I’ll give you one over. If you last six balls from Tom without getting out then you can keep playing. In fact, I’ll even let you be Bradman.’ He held out the bat.

‘Easy!’ said Joan. ‘Only I’m going to be Bradwoman.’ She took the bat and walked to the kerosene tin.

‘Show her what you can do, Tom,’ called Frank, positioning himself in close for a catch.

Tom sighed. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just let Joan play to start with? Frank could be too bossy sometimes, and Tom was starting to like the way Joan stood up to him. He ran in and gave Joan a fairly easy ball, but it caught the corner of a cobblestone and bounced awkwardly, causing her to swing and miss. Frank hooted with delight.

‘Stupid bricks,’ said Joan, as Samson retrieved the ball. ‘And Tom, that was much too slow. Give me a fast one next time.’

‘If you say so,’ said Tom.

He took an extra-long run-up and sent a blistering delivery down the lane. It bounced cleanly and Joan stepped towards it. Tom heard the dull thump of tennis ball on bat, then his mouth dropped open as he watched the ball sail high above Fungus’s head and over a fence at the end of the laneway, where it disappeared into the enormous orange tree that spread across the yard beyond.

‘Noooo!’ cried Samson. ‘Uh oh,’ said Tom.

‘Yes!’ yelled Joan ‘That’s a six!’

‘Now you’ve done it,’ said Frank.

‘What, the ball?’ said Joan. ‘I’ll just nip over and get it.’

‘Oh no you won’t,’ said Tom. ‘That’s Mr Codling’s yard.’

‘Who’s Mr Codling?’ asked Joan.

The Daredevils looked at each other. It was a warm day for early November, but all of a sudden Tom shivered. Everyone in Fitzroy knew the story of Mr Codling – even Tom’s little brother, Petey, who was only four.

‘People say that Mr Codling used to be normal,’ Tom explained. ‘But after he came back from the Great War, he was different.’

‘Different how?’ asked Joan.

Samson butted in. ‘For a start, people heard these terrible screams coming from his house at night. They’d go on for hours sometimes.’

‘And then his wife and son suddenly died,’ said Tom. ‘Both of them on the same day, just like that.’

Joan’s eyes widened. ‘You don’t think he murdered them?’

Tom nodded. ‘Poisoned them, I reckon.’

Samson looked confused. ‘I thought he strangled them?’

‘He did both,’ said Frank. ‘Then he chopped up the bodies with a carving knife and threw the bits into the Yarra. That’s why he never went to jail for it – the police never even found a single finger.’

Joan gasped.

‘That was ten years ago,’ continued Frank. ‘Now Mr Codling hardly leaves the house. But you can still hear him screaming some nights.’

‘And we’ve seen him a few times, walking his pet goat around the back lanes,’ said Samson. ‘You can’t miss Codling – he’s got long hair that looks like steel wool, and he’s always muttering to himself. Get out of the way if you see them coming – that goat is as evil as he is.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Joan breathlessly.

‘Well, you know how billy goats eat everything?’ said Tom. ‘Stinky Taylor told me that a boy once climbed into Mr Codling’s yard to get a football and never came back. The goat ate him up, bones and all.’

‘Cripes,’ said Joan, putting a hand over her mouth.

The Daredevils and Joan were quiet for a moment as they gazed at Mr Codling’s orange tree, which was covered in ripe, delicious- looking fruit. Tom could picture the vicious flesh-eating goat lurking under its branches, just waiting for a trespasser to sink its teeth into.

Frank broke the silence. ‘Thanks a lot, Joan,’ he said. ‘That was our only ball.’

‘Sorry, everyone,’ said Joan. ‘Still, that was a pretty good hit, eh? Are you gonna call me Bradwoman now?’

‘Nope,’ said Frank. ‘It’s Fitzroy rules, and that means over the fence is out. You’re gone.’

Joan looked at Samson, and then at Tom, who shrugged. ‘Better out at cricket than in a billy goat’s belly,’ he said.

And nobody could argue with that.

Reviews

'High action scenes, loveable characters, dastardly villains and family pets in strife will be sure to hook young readers into the wonderful world of historical fiction for life.'
– kids-bookreview.com

'Simon Mitchell has woven a wonderful story around Phar Lap and the Melbourne Cup, Macpherson Robertson who owned a sweet factory in Melbourne, the Depression and backyard cricket...Tom’s determination and never-say-die attitude is uplifting, as is his loyalty to his family. Mitchell also manages to capture both the desperation and fighting spirit of the people who lived through the Depression in a thought-provoking way. This is a highly recommended book for boys and girls.'
– CBCA Reading Time

'An action-packed yarn that champions loyalty and persistence, particularly good for boys aged 7–10.'
– Readings best middle fiction books of 2014

'Time and again there are exciting action scenes where cheerful characters and not-so-likable ones, interact with one another. The themes of friendship, loyalty, self-belief and hope are woven into a story which rings true, a time in Australia’s history that helped to establish the nation’s character. Boys in particular are sure to enjoy this uplifting, engaging and past-paced yarn.'
– Buzz Words Books

'This is a great introduction to Australian history for all those students who think that history is boring! Full of great characters and lots of fun, this book will suit both boys and girls, Years 4 - 6. It will also fit perfectly with the Australian Curriculum and make a great book for group reading to inspire further research.'
– Lamont Books

    Publisher
    Penguin (Do You Dare? series)
    Type
    Junior Fiction
    ISBN (Paperback)
    9780143308010
    ISBN (eBook)
    9781743482483
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