School competition - Winner

Victoria Gemmell

You don't see me; you don't know
School competition


Victoria Gemmell lives in Renfrewshire, Scotland, and enjoys engaging with teenagers in her day job as a careers adviser. Her debut young adult mystery novel Follow Me was published in 2015, with a new standalone YA mystery, Promise Me, in 2021. Victoria also writes contemporary flash fiction and short stories and has been published in a range of journals. At the start of the year Victoria made a conscious decision to write more short stories and is delighted with this win.

You don't see me; you don't know By Victoria Gemmell

When you look at me you don’t see the morning I have already lived before I walk in through your door half an hour late.
‘Again, Jade. This isn’t good enough.’
I am never good enough. My Da’s eyes told me so when he pushed away my attempt at breakfast and slumped back on his armchair facing the widescreen TV he spent all of last month’s benefits on and turned up the volume so he could pretend he didn’t hear my little sister calling for him. I pulled her into my arms instead and helped her put on shoes and braided her hair and tried not to see Maw in her smile.
You don’t see the breakfasts I make with one egg and two stale rolls, for two mouths, not three, because I go without and I can’t even remember when I last ate a proper meal and the hunger burrows deep into my bones.
You don’t see me miss the bus, the one that stops at Milly’s nursery on my school route, so I had to push the pram up the hill, running through puddles, feeling the icy rain soak through the cracks in my boots, until I couldn’t feel my feet. And Milly wanted extra kisses and cuddles before she’d let me leave.
You don’t see me shiver and don’t understand that the rain has soaked through my crappy jacket and has made my white school shirt see-through and I could only find a black bra this morning and I don’t want eyes on me or cat calls, which is why I will not take off my coat when you tell me.  
And I can’t resist swinging back on my chair in your classroom, pressing close against the radiator and when the heat carries up my spine a little bit of tension unfurls and the tiredness pulls at me. Your voice and your instructions are fading, like I am drowning underwater in a pool of treacle and then your hand slams on my desk, making my teeth rattle. I sit up straight, defiant, your anger a dull ring that no longer penetrates because I have seen real fury, words etched in red inside my head: Whore. Worthless. Just like your maw.
I stab my notebook with the tip of my pen and watch in satisfaction as the ink bleeds into the paper, and then the plastic casing crunches and a gloop of blue explodes onto my hands. I get up and tell you I am leaving, that I need to wash my hands, and you are shaking your head in frustration, and you won’t even look at me, already turning away before I am out the door.
You don’t see me.
* * * * *
When you look at me as you come crashing in through my classroom door, your eyes burn with a challenge and I can’t resist rising to it, taking your lateness as disinterest in my class.
You don’t know that your mumbled response, ‘Fat cow,’ feels like a gutter punch and you don’t see the tears that sting as I turn to face the white board and try to catch my breath.  
You don’t know Fat cow is what Greg likes to call me and that he tells me he finds my thighs repulsive. You don’t see me sitting alone in my classroom every lunchtime, avoiding the tantalising smells of the canteen and staff room, hands shaking with hunger.
My hands shake with anger when I see you slumped asleep on your desk. It reminds me of the time Greg yawned all the way through a lesson plan I tried to get him to read when I was doing my teacher training. Your snoring is getting a rise from the class, a chorus of laughter ringing in my ears, and then you open one eye and tell me to, ‘Please be quiet. I’m trying to sleep.’
And the whoops and jeering swamp me, and there is one boy, he has Greg’s smirk, and it is as if I can hear his scorn: Pathetic, weak, doormat. But it is you who gets the brunt of my rage. You don’t even flinch when I punch the desk. I hear a bone crack in my finger and I swallow down the pain.
You don’t know how good I am at swallowing pain, that I am carrying it in my body daily. The other teachers in the department try to persuade me to, ‘Take off that cardigan, Fi.’ ‘Loosen a button.’ But I will not and cannot take off my layers, as I am purple and blue underneath.
You don’t know when you show me the ink spreading across your hands that I am remembering the bruise that bled across my stomach last night. I have to turn away. I cannot deal with your nonsense, your laziness, your immaturity. You do not know what I have to carry with me when I come in here and then what I carry when I go home.
You do not see me.
* * * * *
Milly is tugging my hand, pulling me over to the swings and I see you across the road, walking with a man, who is tugging your arm. I position Milly in the swing so that I am facing you and as I push her higher I see the man shove you, just a nudge, but hard enough that you stumble. The carrier bag you are holding drops with a thud to the ground and apples roll along the pavement and a carton of milk goes splat, a stream of white trickling into the road. His body stretches above you, his mouth opening in a roar, and you are cowering, shrinking beneath him. And I know. I know this scene. My body is reacting before my mind, and Milly is screaming as I yank her out of the swing, her feet kicking my hips in protest as I pull her in close and run across the street just as his fist is rising.
‘Miss Callaghan,’ I shout your name and he reacts first. His hand disappears into his pocket and a smile spreads across his face but he has eyes like a snake. I see you.
You look dazed, unable to find your voice and Milly throws you a life line, her fingers finding the end of your scarf and she tugs, giving you one of her best smiles.
‘Oh, hello, Jade. Hello, little one. What’s your name?’
‘This is my sister, Milly.’ I pull Milly’s hand away from the scarf and turn my attention to the man. You’re refusing to look at him and he has put an arm around your back, pulling you away from us.
‘We need to get back to the shop. Fi ruined our dinner plans. Can’t make cheese sauce without milk.’
You are mumbling an apology and I see the fear and the panic on your face.
Milly struggles in my arms, whining about being hungry, and I shush her and the man says goodbye for both of you and I watch you walk away, wanting to chase after you, wanting to check you are okay. Because I know you are not okay.
* * * * *
You won’t look at me when I walk into your classroom on Monday morning. I set my alarm for 6am so that I am early today. I take a seat at the front and I watch the way you move, slowly, stiffly, as if in pain and my fist curls. I answer all of your questions and listen to all of your instructions and I see the wariness in your eyes; you think I am taking the piss, and this is a new way of acting out.
When the bell goes I don’t move and wait for everyone else to leave and you look up in surprise.
There is an awkward silence then you speak first. ‘Your sister is very cute. Do you look after her often?’ Your question has questions beneath it and I decide to give you what you’re wanting.
‘All the time after our Maw died. My Da doesn’t want to know.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Does your boyfriend hit you?’ My question has no questions beneath it and I know you are shocked by my bluntness. You open and close your mouth and I wonder if you are tasting the lies before deciding which one to choose.
When you say nothing we both know you’ve told me the answer, but you’re not ready to speak it out loud.
You shuffle some papers on your desk, pulling one to the top. ‘You know, the last test you did was really quite good, Jade. If you put some effort in I think you could easily get an A.’
I sit back, folding my arms. ‘I know I could.’
A smile twitches on your lips. You look at me. ‘How about I buy you lunch today and you bring it in here and I go over some extra work with you?’
I shrug, shame flaming my cheeks as I think back to the comment I made last week when I called you fat and now I can see your skin is practically sliding off your bones. ‘Only if you buy us the burgers and we can share chips and onion rings.’
You nod your agreement but I make you shake on it, and when you give my hand an extra squeeze before you let go, I squeeze back.  

Judges Comments

Both characters have a satisfying arc in Victoria Gemmell's You don't see me; you don't know, the winner of WM's School Short Story Competition. What gives this story its winning edge is the way the two intertwined stories, pupil and teacher, mirror each other.

In this two-hander, told via twinned first-person voices, we discover that both protagonists are presenting a facade. Each is concealing sorrow and shame in public. Teenage Jade's home life is a daily struggle in the wake of her mother's death. She cares for her little sister. She tries to make ends meet. Her father's a vicious wastrel who belittles her. She's exhausted. Of course it impacts on her school life. And of course she resents the teacher who doesn't understand what's behind her apparent failure. In parallel, teacher Fi also has a desperately unhappy home life with an abusive partner. Both are understandably wrapped up in their own misery. Being misunderstood and unable to share their pain adds another layer to both character's sense of being lonely and isolated in their unhappiness.

Their well-created interior voices and and their journey towards visibility in each others' eyes makes for a gritty, rewarding tale. Victoria handles the shift from interiority to conveying external circumstances with skill, and there's a nice twist in the way Jade, the younger person, is given the most agency and is the character who acts as the catalyst for being the change the story needs as it moves towards a resolution. At this turning point, Jade 'sees' Fi in the park and understands her teacher's circumstances; her action enables Fi to open her eyes and not just to 'see' Jade, but to respond to her with encouragement and kindness.

The paired characters' move from isolation to friendship makes for a touching story. It's not sentimental, because both characters are still embedded in their unhappy life circumstances, but Jade and Fi offer each other the knowledge that they are seen and understood, and in this way, a change for the better takes place that's more rewarding, because more 'real', than a 'happy ever after' ending.


Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the School competition was Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, whose story is published on
Also shortlisted were: Jacqueline Burgoyne, Portland, Dorset; Michael Callaghan, Glasgow; David Graham, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear; Katie Kent, Bicester, Oxfordshire; Damien McKeating, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire; Jacqueline Pye, Southampton; Deborah J Smith, Maidenhead, Berkshire; Wendy Turner, London SE3