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An exclusive extract from “Mr Spicebag”

by Freddie Alexander, illustrated by Helen O’Higgins, published by Harper Collins Ireland

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George lived in a small town where everyone was obsessed with Spice Bags. Well, nearly everyone. You may have heard of a Spice Bag before. You may have even tried a Spice Bag.

A normal Spice Bag can be crunchy or soggy. It’s made up of crispy fries and spicy chicken bits and, depending on where you buy it from or what day of the week it is, perhaps some peppers or onions or chillies. Normal Spice Bags are sold in chip shops and Chinese takeaways up and down the country. I think most of you will agree, with the greatest of respect, that most Spice Bags are more or less the same.

But this story is not about a normal Spice Bag. Nor is it about a normal boy. No, far from it. Reader, this is a story about the real Spice Bag and a rather exceptional 10-year-old boy. Very few people have heard this story. I feel it my duty to share it with you.

The real Spice Bag was named after the most widely recognised man in George’s town: the impossibly tall and bony Mr Spicebag. People simply could not get enough of the Spice Bag. They ate Spice Bags for break- fast, lunch and dinner every day of the week. It was all that they lived for and, as a result, Mr Spicebag was without a doubt the most worshipped man in town.

So, what was it about the real Spice Bag that people craved, you so impatiently ask? Well, that’s just it. Nobody knew. I didn’t know. And you certainly don’t know because you’ve just started reading this book. But one thing is clear – everybody loved it.

As with many stories, this has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I always prefer to start at the beginning.

It starts with our George, a pleasant and polite boy who lived with his family – his dad, his mum and his older sister, Lucy. George was, how you say, a ‘pip-squeak’. A ‘runt’. A ‘little twerp’, if you will. He was as scrawny as he was kind, with fair hair and a freckly nose. He was a decent sort who deserved a decent life. Unfortunately for him, however, he lived in a town where the vast majority of people were greedy and nasty. There is no doubt at all in my mind, Reader, that this centred around everyone’s obsession with the Spice Bag.

George’s town was not always so addicted to Spice Bags, you see. In fact, it had been a very normal town only a few years earlier, much like yours or mine. People jogged, cats purred and dogs pooed (and almost no one cleaned it up!). Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened (which, as you will learn, is not necessarily a bad thing).

Following the arrival of Mr Spicebag’s chipper, the town turned into a strange one. For a start, it was always raining, but there was more to it than that. There was a dark and heavy atmosphere that George could not quite put his finger or toe on. The people skulked from home to work, work to home. The only interruption was the trip to the adored local chipper, Mr Spicebag’s.

George’s parents were horrible. In fact, it was safe to say that George’s parents were the cruellest, nastiest, meanest parents in town. They even had a plaque on their gate to prove it. It read: HERE LIVE GEORGE’S PARENTS – THE CRUELLEST, NASTIEST, MEANEST PARENTS IN TOWN.

After living in the town for just a week, George’s parents became obsessed with Spice Bags. In no time, it was all they could think about. They would insist on George serving them food (Spice Bags, of course) at any hour, day or night. It was far too often that the poor boy would be turfed from his cosy bed in the middle of the night to fetch more Spice Bags. As a result, the house absolutely stank of grease.

His parents were also incredibly lazy and never lifted a finger. They would bark order after order at George as they scoffed down their Spice Bags. It was up to George to wash the floors, and paint the house, and hoover the stairs, and feed the cat, and wash the dog, then wash the cat and feed the dog, all on top of his homework.

But worst of all, George’s parents did not even feed him properly. To them, food was a privilege, not a right. They would eat Spice Bag after Spice Bag and the only thing they would allow George to eat was cold, watery porridge.

It was as if they went out of their way to feed him the most disgusting dish they could think of. More importantly, however, porridge was cheap, which meant they could buy more Spice Bags for themselves. Whatever the reason, their choice of diet for him meant that George was one of the few people in town not addicted to Spice Bags.

George’s dad was a judge whose job it was to shout a lot at people. He was extremely good at this job and, because he was so lazy, he often held court in the family’s living room, or kitchen, or really wherever he fancied, rather than bother to go to court. Sometimes George’s dad would shout at people from the toilet.

During the day, criminals would line up in single file outside whichever room George’s dad had chosen, waiting their turn to be shouted at. Some would pass the time playing cards while others enjoyed mass brawls. George’s favourite criminal was Fran, an 85-year-old woman, who had taught him how to play the harmonica. Fran had been found guilty of GTA (Gran Theft Apple) on many, many occasions, having been caught robbing an orchard 365 times in the previous year.

Both of George’s parents were large . . . very, very, very large. This was due entirely to their complete obsession with the Spice Bag. They looked like two people who had taken part (successfully) in an elephant-eating contest after those elephants had taken part in a pizza (-with-extra-cheese) eating tour-nament.

‘What shall we have for breakfast?’ George’s dad would ask.

‘SPICE BAGS, of course,’ his mum would reply, and off they would trundle.

Then at lunchtime George’s mum would say, ‘Oh, I’m starving! What shall we eat?’

‘I think a Spice Bag would slide down quite nicely,’ his dad would declare. ‘Quite nicely indeed . . .’ and off they would plod to Mr Spicebag’s.

And after a long day of barking orders at George, his dad would say, ‘Gosh, I’m feeling rather tired after such a hard day’s work, and you know what, I still feel hungry.’ ‘Yes,’ George’s mum would agree, her belly gurgling enthusiastically. ‘Yes, I am famished.’

And, well, you might have guessed what was on the menu. You’re getting the hang of it – the Spice Bag!

Sometimes, George would suggest, ‘How about some- thing healthy? Some lettuce, maybe?’

Some lettuce, maybe?’ his dad would mimic in a high- pitched voice. ‘Oh, my name’s George and I’m a spoilt little boy who talks back to his parents!

‘The amount we do for you,’ his mum would add. ‘We put a roof over your head, working our fingers to the bone to give you a good life!’

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Well, except the roof. Admittedly, their house did have a roof.

‘Now out with you and get twelve Spice Bags EACH for your dad and me!’ his mum would shout.

‘Yes, get going before I eat YOU!’ his dad would add before throwing George out the door, much like an Olympic shot-put thrower.

Then there was George’s sister, Lucy, who didn’t seem to care  about anyone  or anything. She avoided their parents as best she could, spending the day looking at her phone and blowing bubble gum. George thought that one day Lucy could set up a very successful business blowing huge bubbles and floating people around, a bit like sightseeing by hot air balloon. Someone else would have to give the tours, though, as Lucy hardly ever spoke – she only texted.

George and Lucy used to be great friends, but one day Lucy got a bit taller and a bit meaner and decided that she was too cool to hang around with him. This bothered him at the time but now he was used to it, although he hoped that one day they would be friends again.

Curiously, George’s parents hadn’t always been so horrible. They used to live in a different town altogether before George’s dad had been made a judge. Before the big move, and before their absurd obsession with the Spice Bag, George’s parents used to take him and Lucy out on walks by the sea or they would go to the park and play football, and they always had time to listen to him. His dad used to tell him funny bedtime stories about penguins flying aeroplanes or horses pretending to be zebras to get into Z-rated films. His mum used to tuck him into bed so tightly that he knew he was safe from rolling onto the (pretend) burning lava floor beneath. However, like Lucy, they had become meaner. This bothered him at the time and it still bothered him if he was being honest. He felt alone and at night he often cried until his pillow felt quite damp.

But life would not always be so lonely for George.

Adventure was just over the page . . .

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