BLUE - Winner

Isla Blackley

Little Blue


Isla Blackley is from Glasgow, Scotland. She was shortlisted for the writing competition for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival in 2022 and came second in the 2022 Mountaineering Scotland Writing Competition. ‘Little Blue’ is her third published short story.

Little Blue By Isla Blackley

Would you remember the icicles dangling from above the windows? How they lit up against the gunmetal grey council scheme. Who needed decorations? We certainly didn’t. The icicles were blue, like the forget-me-nots which covered the grass by the swing park in the summertime, tiny little points of lilac-blue like stars trapped in a green sky.
What I didn’t know then was we couldn’t have afforded to fritter the little savings we had on Christmas decorations. I would notice the lines forming between your eyebrows when you thought you were alone in the kitchen. Then, as soon as you saw me how this shifted, your face a sun breaking free.
None of this stopped you from sharing the magic of that time of year. For us, it was simply different from the lavish ways it’s often depicted in popular culture. On Christmas morning, you taught me how to be grateful for the feeling of being loved, in addition to whatever small but meaningful gift you would present me. Or, in the warmer months, we picked the forget-me-nots and other wildflowers and pressed them, placing their flattened, preserved shapes in between glass to make necklaces, earrings and hanging ornaments. I came to understand that, even if in a busy, stressful place, one needed simply to look upwards and find really, there was endless space. Or focus one’s attention in one place, and find clarity there.
Whatever time of the year it is, days or moments long-forgotten may emerge. In December, when I wander around department stores or down suburban streets, the flashing lights cast a light over the darkest time of the year – yet, I can’t help feeling there is a need for darkness. It is nature’s way, to throw a cloak over the particular hemisphere it happens to be winter in, those residing there are given the chance to be restored, before the livelier seasons come around again. I recall during power cuts in the scheme, how you and I would huddle together with candles lit, and their subtle glow was all the warmer and brighter for the dark. Nowadays, I might turn a corner in the festive season, and stumble upon a tree or a bush wrapped up in a chaos of cobalt fairy lights, and I immediately think of us, staring at those gentle icicles, glistening into sharp points. People wish to mimic the beauty which nature brings. It’s a wonder, then, why so many people become perfectionists. Nature is far from perfect, as in it everything ends. Those icicles would begin to drip, splashing onto the concrete beneath, and eventually disappear.
I remember your eyes. They were blue. I think of them often. When I look in the mirror, I see them, too, as if you are looking back at me in the shining glass. It would be hard to forget. Impossible.
It’s often said that when someone goes you start to forget the little things about them. But I remember how you often wore blue, not because you were sombre, but because it was the colour of the sky in summer, the oceans filled with whales and starfish. Because it was the opposite of blue, to you.
I recall the anticipation I felt when we walked to the local library on a Saturday morning, the crumbling walls on the outside, the particular smell of old paper on the inside. The stories we read from the books we loaned were those of mermaids and selkies. They existed in an azure sea. I would stare out at the waves when we went to the coast, wondering if I’d seen one, the flash of a tail glinting in the sun’s light, or the gentle bob of a common grey seal’s head was actually a selkie girl, staring back at the land, wondering if she should come back or stay in the sea. I wondered about that. What I would do, if I found out I was a selkie or a mermaid, given the choice to leave my life on the land and spend it instead in the sea beneath the waves. Would I choose to live a life in the ocean, swimming, or would I stay a human? Would I choose my seal skin or fishtail, now?
Everything would come back to blue.
Which wasn’t necessarily a sign of sadness. It could be, though, but not always. I think of the countless songs depicting it in this light. Joni Mitchell’s album Blue springs to mind – it’s hard not to connect to its depth. Emptiness, despair – all states which most any human can connect with. Yet, I find there is a certain peace to it, a stillness – which it is also associated with. I think this was the case, for you. We tend to view melancholy with a certain element of peace, tranquillity – as if this state brings with it the chance to go slowly, a break from the constant quickness, a move away from the pace we believe we are forced to achieve.
Which is why, when you were lying there in a hospital ward with blue curtains, it seemed both wrong and right for them to be this way. On the one hand, perhaps when you opened your eyes you might be reminded of the summer sky, the ocean, the things which brought you the most joy. Or perhaps it would bring a new association. I didn’t like to think of you, not wanting to wear blue anymore because it reminded you of the hospital, and sickness.
I brought a small bouquet of wildflowers for you, which I’d picked carefully from the tufts of grasses nearby the scheme. You held them close, and took in their scent. Said they reminded you of how beautiful it was outside, in the forests, among the trees and bluebells. I asked if we’d go there again soon. I thought this would be the same as the first time, when your hair fell out and you wore headscarves on the bus and were sick but you got better in the end. You never said anything, and my chest felt tight when you didn’t answer. But then you smiled gently, and pushed my hair back from my forehead. Your face was pale, tired, your irises still shining out as they always did.
The nurse came in and told me not to bring wildflowers anymore and asked me to put them in the bin or back outside. They might be unsafe in this clinical world. The idea of wildflowers being unsafe made me want to laugh. They only wanted artificial ones in the ward. I pictured myself going into a store with Gran, perhaps, looking at the fake flowers hanging up, going to a counter and handing over money for them. You and I both knew it wouldn’t be the same, and when our eyes connected it was like a secret we held, removing us from this place. Part of me felt a little guilty for that, because I knew it was a place of healing, but I didn’t want you there. I wanted us to go home. Couldn’t the natural world do all the healing? It always had, before. Whenever I felt sick, we’d read stories of fairies dancing between the stems and branches, you’d brew me a tea made from herbs you’d found in the forest we’d get the bus to on weekends, and it made me feel better.

When you left, I imagined you in a world of blue. With everything you loved around you.  

Twenty years later, I’m standing in front of your gravestone. There are already scatterings of orange and brown leaves. Each season, I’m here, to watch the shifts and changes around where you lie, near that same forest we’d go to at the weekend. When the many branches are bare, or the cherry blossoms gleam bright, and as the many leaves shift from jade to amber. Never an easy thought while we are living, yet I feel it may have brought you some peace, knowing that wildlife and flowers carry on after we are gone, trees continue their cycle whether we are here to view it happening, or not.
I look down at my protruding midriff, and my breathing stills. I went for my final ultrasound scan, and saw her. Her head, round as a moon, she was a pale, cloud-like grey against the safety of the dark.
“I hope to be as good a mum to her as you were to me.”
How you hardly wavered in the face of adversity, remained hopeful in the face of your illness. Passing down your way of viewing the beauty in the world even in difficult times, when money was so scarce you didn’t know how we’d make it to the end of each month. Watching the light glistening off of the icicles.
You did answer me. A few days before you passed, voice quiet in the hospital ward, you told me,
“When the rain falls just the right amount, or a bird sings and you can’t help but stop to listen. Notice it all, and you’ll find I’m still there, just differently to how I was before.”
Just then, a bluetit flies by, quickly, if I’d been looking away, I could easily have missed it. It might rain, soon.
Everything, always coming back to blue.
“I can’t wait to meet you, Little Blue,” I say to my bump, my daughter, your grand-daughter. She’s kicking, waiting to begin. 

Judges Comments

'Little Blue', the winner in WM's Blue Short Story Competition, is a beautiful piece of writing. In it, Isla Blackley has crafted a lyrical mediation on life, death, nature, magic, memory, missing and motherhood, all connected to the theme of 'blue', written as a direct address to a dead parent.

Writing as though the narrator was talking to their deeply loved mother, Isla imbues the piece with a tender intimacy. Almost, this writing about the connectedness of things is a list of memories – a patchwork of treasured scraps connected to the narrator's reminiscences of 'you', all threaded together because each one relates to the colour 'Blue'.

Isla's writing style in this layered, lovely piece feels organic, with its recurring nature motifs, and oceanic, as the memories wash like waves over the narrator. It's cyclical too, with mourning at the loss of the mother followed by the anticipatatory joy at the coming of new life. 'Little Blue' is many things – gentle, strong, peaceful, emotive, fragmentary, thoughtful, deep – and shows how a theme can be threaded through a piece of writing to extraordinary effect.




The runner up in WM’s Blue Short Story Competition was Bethany Hitchen, Bishop Auckland, County Durham. You can read her story at:
Also shortlisted were: Kell Cowley, Chester; Ellen Evers, Congelton, Cheshire; Georgia Griffiths, Patchway, Bristol; Liz Gwinnell, Hilperton, Wiltshire; Angela Joy Hindle, North Duffield, North Yorkshire; Wendy Hood, North Shields, Tyne and Wear; Brenda Hutchings, Paignton, Devon; Chris Morris, Dundee; Denarii Peters, Horncastle, Lincs; Jill Swale, Wokingham, Berkshire.