When I was 15 I was sexually assaulted in front of dozens of people. 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.
Boys from two different boys' grammar schools got the No 38, so journeys were always fraught with opportunity. I had just started fourth form at my school in Belfast; I wore black eyeliner and had worked out the exact number of hitches to give my school skirt to make it fashionably short. The textbooks inside my army-surplus satchel had grown-up titles such as A Complete O Level French Course. You would not know to look at me that I still read Chalet School books in secret.
A quick recce showed me that there were no boys on the bus apart from two twerpy first-formers in blazers down to their knees. Full of disappointed relief, I swung into a window seat and took out Twelfth Night: I could do my homework reading now and leave the evening free for Brookside and John Peel.
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. Its sharp, sweet smell filled the bus. Juice squirted on to my skirt.
I wriggled. My seat was shrinking. Why would someone whose backside obviously needed more than the space allotted by Citybus not take advantage of the double seats still available? I had a good idea why, but I didn’t let myself articulate it.
He slurped the orange. I looked at my skirt. The droplets of juice were drying in. I hoped they wouldn't stain. There didn't seem to be room for me to turn the pages of Twelfth Night properly so I put it back in my bag. I looked out of the window at the Ormeau Road creeping past. How could we only be at the bridge? There were miles to go, squashed into this tiny island of seat.
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 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, judgmental girl?
I pulled my schoolbag up on my knee. Still only at the Curzon cinema. Smoke drifted down from the back seats. I told myself to wise up. It’s not as if he was exactly touching me; his hands were in his lap.
I made myself look. His trousers lay open. His penis stood up from a lather of grey pubes. A smell like the one my male guinea pig made when he saw the female overwhelmed the tang of orange.
They looked away at once
I heard the loud “excuse me” before I knew I was going to say it. People looked round. Caught my eye. Looked away at once. I pushed out past him. He kept on wanking. My schoolbag bashed him on the way past. I didn’t apologise.
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.
Sweat ran down my back, inside my school shirt. Three or four buses passed as I forced myself up the hill but I let them go. I unhitched my waistband and felt my skirt swish around my knees again. I walked all the way home. I didn’t tell my mum.
I didn’t tell anyone until I was in my 20s. And when I did, of course, I found out that 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 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.
I was a bright, politically aware and confident young woman, but no matter how much I knew, intellectually, that I had not done anything wrong, on a more visceral level I felt dirty and ashamed. If one passenger had asked me if I was okay, or in any way indicated that I wasn’t to blame, it would have made a huge difference. Because I knew the guy was sick. I’d suspected that even before he unzipped his flies. But everyone else on the bus was normal. People like my parents, my teachers.
So it was reassuring to find out, however many years later, that I wasn’t alone. Reassuring and yet profoundly depressing too: I was normal, after all, but being normal meant being a victim. Because we all were.
I write fiction for young adults, which has been described as “unflinchingly realistic”. I haven’t directly written about this situation, but my new novel,
, centres on a character who has internalised sexual guilt to the point where it almost destroys him. It was only when a journalist asked me if I was writing from experience, and I opened my mouth to say, thankfully no, that I realised his feelings were basically the same as mine, albeit that my experience was so much more trivial.
But it was the 1980s. It was a different time with different standards, as people keep saying as more and more historical instances of sexual abuse and exploitation are exposed. It wouldn’t happen today.
Except, of course, that it does. It happens all the time, in cities all over the world. The paedophiles haven’t all stayed at home to masturbate over their online porn instead of rubbing themselves against real girls. A recent Transport for London survey revealed that 15 per cent of women and girls experienced unwanted sexual behaviour on the London transport network, but 90 per cent of them didn’t report it. And yes, teens today may be savvier, but they’ve grown up, perhaps even more than I did, in a society that offers conflicting and highly sexualised views of women. Today’s teenage girl would be carrying her mobile phone, but if the human beings around you won’t help, what use is your phone? It would hardly be a selfie opportunity.
I don’t travel by bus often these days, but if I ever witness someone being treated the way I was, I hope I don’t turn my back.
Sheena Wilkinson's new novel Still Falling, published by Little Island, is out now