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'He asked for kisses, he tried to grope me'

Author Sheena Wilkinson was in for a shock after elderly 'benefactor' bought a pony for her

When I was 13 the word grooming meant one thing: ponies. Not my pony, sadly. Ponies belonged to the snotty girls at school or to the girls in books, not girls like me on Belfast housing estates.

The girls in books were brave and resourceful. They weren't all born to ponies, but achieved ponies by the end of the story through daring and determination. But opportunities to save the squire's favourite hunter with a tourniquet, or gallop bareback over the hills to bring the village fire brigade to the burning stables, proved thin on the ground in 1980s Belfast.

Still, I was used to making do with the next-best thing. So what about a donkey? The snotty girls laughed. My parents said I was allowed to buy a donkey if I could finance it myself and find a field to rent. They knew I wouldn't. I was a poor saver, and a great serial enthusiast. By next month it would be ballet or boats or even - I was nearly 14 - boys.

But I was stubborn. I saved my pocket money. I sold outgrown dolls and books. I imagined myself training a beautiful, clever donkey to do all a mere pony could and more. All those snotty pony club girls would be queuing up for a ride.

I cycled round all the shops on the edge of the city, where suburbs bled into green belt, and persuaded them to display my card. Again, my parents let me. They assumed nobody would respond to a child's handwritten advert.

But someone did. An elderly man. I'll call him F. I could keep my donkey in his field for £3 a month. This was a bargain, even in 1982, and I was jubilant. I bought a donkey, called him Dylan, and looked forward to an idyllic pony book summer.

When I boasted about Dylan and my field to the snotty pony girls, they said: "Oh, we know F. He's a pervert."

Did I know what that meant? I was smart and bookish, but not streetwise. I had a notion that pervert was something bad. But not bad enough to put me off. After all, the girls in books weren't so easily deterred.

Anyway, F was nice. He never took the £3 - in fact, he gave me money to buy sweets and cake at the local shop. He had a caravan beside the field, and this became my den, like the Secret Seven's shed. It was a bit lonely - none of my friends would join me - and Dylan didn't appreciate as much grooming and fussing as the ponies in books. He preferred kicking and biting. I was scared of him. But I couldn't admit I might have made a mistake. I spent long days in that caravan. Mostly reading or writing (a pony book in which the heroine had lots of friends as well as a pony). Sometimes I ventured up the road on Dylan, and F was kind enough to walk beside me, a steadying hand on my leg.

"A wee girl like you shouldn't have a stubborn old donkey," he said. "You need a pony."

"Oh yeah, how's that going to happen?"

"I'll buy you one."

Oh, my hero! Even in the most magical pony books, it was never that easy. Never mind sweets and cake: he bought me a real, live pony, a grey mare with soft dark eyes like a pony in a book. She loved being groomed and fussed over.

But now F started asking for kisses. I said no. But I hadn't said no to the sweets, and the cakes, and the pony. He tried to grope me. This involved a lot of dodging round the caravan with my arms folded across my developing chest, like a comedy TV scene where men groped and girls dodged round chairs. These scenes always ended in the girl across the man's knee, getting a jolly good spanking. I had to get out before I ended up across F's knee, or worse.

It's hard to fend off a fully-grown man with your arms folded. In a caravan.

Just before I was 14 I found Dylan a new home, said a tearful, guilty farewell to the pony, and slunk away, my pony book summer over. I never told anybody what F had tried to do, and I never asked my parents if they suspected anything. Yes, we were naïve. But not as naïve as those who weren't around in 1982 might think. This was the era of Jimmy Savile and a bit of slap and tickle on Saturday night TV. If the books I read hadn't prepared me for that reality, the culture I grew up in did. I had taken the sweets. I had taken the pony. F was a man. I was a girl. What did I expect?

Today, there are 70,000 reported investigations into paedophiles every year in the UK and child abuse reports have risen by 80% in three years. We regularly hear scandals of teenage girls - like Shania and her friends in my novel Street Song - being groomed by older men who exploit them sexually. Unlike Shania, I wasn't drug-dependent and vulnerable, and I had a good family.

I was just a girl who wanted a pony and couldn't believe her luck when someone bought her one. I should have had more faith in the books. In the books it was never that easy.

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