As schoolgirl I suffered sex attack on busy Belfast bus and no one tried to help me, says author Sheena Wilkinson
An award-winning author has revealed how she was sexually assaulted in front of dozens of people on a bus in Belfast.
Sheena Wilkinson said no one came to her aid in the disturbing bus journey she endured as a 15-year-old on her way home from school in the 1980s.
Ms Wilkinson was speaking following the launch of her new novel, Still Falling, which centres on a character who has internalised sexual guilt to the point where it almost destroys him.
The writer, who's on a career break from her job as an English teacher at Methodist College, said she realised only recently that her own experience, though "much more trivial", had helped influence her writing.
Outlining what happened on that journey home along the Ormeau Road she recalled how "nobody tried to help".
"I'd spotted the man behind me in the bus queue - fat, dishevelled, peeling an orange, and somehow just a bit weird-looking - and prayed he wouldn't sit beside me," she said.
"The man I had spotted in the queue was making straight for the empty seat beside me, even though there were plenty of double seats. I didn't make eye contact. I didn't want him to register my instinctive disgust. I must not, under any circumstances, hurt his feelings.
"The bus shuddered away and he started to eat the orange... juice squirted on to my skirt.
"The scratchy material of his trousers rubbed my bare leg. Not the odd moment of accidental contact, but the whole way down. The seat shrank and shrank until I was perched on one bum cheek.
"The orangey, sweaty smell of him caught in my throat. Around me, people chatted; the bus was now full. Just move, I told myself. But that would mean standing up, saying 'excuse me' and what would he think? What would other people think? What a nasty, judgemental girl? I made myself look.
"His trousers lay open."
The Young Adult Fiction writer went on to describe her distress as she pushed out past him.
"I heard the loud 'excuse me' before I knew I was going to say it," she said. "People looked around. Caught my eye. Looked away at once... All I saw were the backs of people's heads.
"I hit the bell, even though we were nowhere near a stop. I grabbed the bars around the rear door, ready to dash out the instant the bus stopped. I was terrified that he would be behind me, but when I jumped down the steps and on to the Ormeau Road, which looked weirdly the same as usual, nobody else got off.
"I didn't tell anyone until I was in my 20s. And when I did, of course, I found out my experience was banal. Trivial. Every woman I knew had a similar story. And worse. Including me: at a sleepover with my friend, her mother's boyfriend had just put his hand down my nightie.
"At the time this had only confirmed what the incident on the No 38 bus suggested: there was something culpable about being 15, being female, being me. Something that made men behave badly; something that made the adults on the bus turn away."
Ms Wilkinson said while she knew she had not done anything wrong, on a more "visceral level", she felt "dirty and ashamed". Sheena wrote about her experience this week for the Irish Times and since then has had many messages of support via social media.
"We are definitely more aware and confident as a society. We like to think it would not happen today. I am not sure.
"I'm identified as a feminist, I was not some kind of naive little girl. I was an outspoken girl and if that had affected me, how did it affect the less confident?"
- Still Falling is published by Little Island, £7.99