Schoolboy Ben wants a sex change because he believes he has been born into the wrong body. Past-life therapist Mary thinks he may be right. In hypnotic trances Ben recalls a previous incarnation as herring girl Annie, but the memories stop abruptly in the summer of 1898 when Annie is 16. A time-slip novel investigating a century-old murder and the possibility of reincarnation.

‘Wonderful – conjures up the past with visceral intensity’ Sarah Dunant
‘A vividly imaginative, sensuous and atmospheric novel’ Helen Dunmore

Herring Girl (excerpt)

The knickers are covered with tiny pink hearts. Standing sideways, Ben checks out his reflection in the mirror. Do they hold him flat enough? He’s not sure.

Ben stares at his face in the mirror, just stares, trying to see who’s in there. He feels like his body’s a coat that belongs to someone else. He’s put it on by mistake and now he can’t get it off. It feels like at school when you write down the wrong answer in pencil, then rub it out and write over it, but the dent of the old writing’s still there underneath – and it was right all along.

He’s been awake for hours waiting for Dad to leave, listening to him moving around the big open-plan flat: boiling the kettle, slamming the fridge, the dishwasher, the tumble drier. Then finally, finally, the clomp of his boots down the hall to Ben’s room, and the slap of his hand on the door: ‘Hey, lazybones! That’s me off now. I’ve left a couple of twenties on the table. Remember and call Nana if you need anything.’

The front door bangs shut and Ben waits a minute before unlocking his door. Still in pyjamas, he pads around the flat in bare feet to check Dad’s really gone – which is daft, because of course he has. Plus Dad couldn’t lurk quietly if he tried. Still, Ben checks every room just to make sure, then puts the chain on the front door in case he pops back for something or the cleaners turn up on the wrong day.

Dad’s away on the boat all this week, which means Ben’s got loads of time to do what he’s decided. Nana’s supposed to drop in later with his tea, but that still leaves the whole day.

He goes back into his room and locks the door again. It’s second nature now: push it shut, lean on it a moment with his eyes closed, turn the key, then drape his dressing-gown over the keyhole. Not that Dad would ever crouch down to peer through, plus the key’s in the way, but it makes Ben feel safer.

Burrowing to the back of his wardrobe, he tugs out the old sports bag he had in Year 5. He keeps it hidden under a load of other stuff: his new sports bag, all his trainers and flip-flops, odd bits of diving gear. He heaves it onto the bed and unzips it. There’s a couple of old Newcastle shirts on top, in case Dad breaks in to his room – he never would, but still. Underneath the shirts are all his private things, in separate washbags: his make-up and nail varnishes, his jewellery, all his hair stuff. Poor old Lily the Pink’s squashed in there too, during the day. Dad stuffed her in a bin liner for Oxfam four years ago, but Ben swapped her for a cushion at the last minute.

He tugs Lily out and sits her on his pillow. Then he takes a deep breath and starts pulling out the clothes he’s going to wear.

‘Nothing too feminine for your first outing,’ it said on the website. ‘You want to blend in, not draw attention to yourself.’ So he’s got a pair of denim cut-offs and one of those pink peaked caps that show your hair, like a baseball cap with the top missing; and a short-sleeved stripy pink T-shirt. He was going to wear one of the little strappy tops he’s bought, but he was worried people would be able to tell, somehow, just by looking at his shoulders, that he was a boy.

He’s been buying clothes for months now, from that big all-night supermarket on the Coast Road: just one or two things at a time, making sure he always goes to a different checkout girl. And he always buys a girl’s birthday card too, so it looks like he’s getting pressies, plus normal boy’s socks or something, and crisps and that, so the checkout girls never batted an eyelid.

He thought for ages about shoes, because trainers always make his feet look enormous, even though they’re still only a five. In the end he got some of those open-toed sandals with Velcro fastenings, that could be for a boy or a girl. He was going to get the pink, but then he remembered what the website said and got the blue instead.

When everything’s ready he goes into his en-suite and has a shower to wash away being a boy – at least that’s what it feels like. He uses one of the fruit shampoos he keeps hidden in the sports bag, with the matching conditioner and shower gel; then blow-dries his hair with styling mousse, so it’s a bit feathery in the front where he put in some blonde streaks last week.

Dad’s always trying to get Ben’s hair clipped short like his, but Ben can’t stand the macho Bruce Willis look he goes in for. What he really wants is hair long enough to do in different styles, but Dad would never go for that. Plus he’d get serious grief at school if he started turning up with long hair. So in the end they compromised. Dad says he can have it long as he likes at the front, provided there’s what he calls ‘a proper barber job’ at the back.

Ben’s practiced this feathery style loads of times – it’s the one that makes him look most like a girl – but he’s always had to brush it out before anyone sees it. And wipe off his mascara and his careful layer of glittery eye shadow. But this time he leaves it all on, then goes back into the bedroom where his outfit is laid out neatly on the bed.

He unfolds some new cotton knickers and pulls them on. He’s been planning this for months, but now he’s actually doing it, he feels sick and a bit shivery. The knickers are covered with tiny pink hearts. Standing sideways, he checks out his reflection in the mirror. Do they hold him flat enough? He’s not sure. Maybe. But what if someone looks closely? Shivering properly now, and feeling like he might actually throw up, he grabs his old grey hoodie and trackie bot- toms off the floor. He’ll wait till he feels better, he decides. Have some breakfast first, maybe; see what’s on TV. Be a normal boy for a bit longer.

Except he’s not a normal boy, is he? Not inside, not deep down. And he can’t put it off any longer. Dropping the hoodie back on the floor, he reaches for the stripy pink T-shirt.

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