It’s as if Billy, from “The End of the World”, had heard the tragic story of Shirley and Pete Higgins and used it to justify his reluctance to leave Canada.
Unlike Billy, Shirley and Pete were thrilled to honeymoon in Europe, thrilled by all the ordinary things made extraordinary by virtue of their elsewhere-ness.
Until the afternoon when Pete borrowed a bicycle in a small Italian town, while the couple waited for their train to Nice. His gestures were misunderstood and residents believed that he meant to steal the bicycle and the resulting intervention ended in tragedy.
Shirley becomes a widow even more suddenly than she became a bride. She had barely begun to understand what it meant to be married and, indeed, in her mourning is still trying to figure out what that connection meant and should have meant, what she might have learned from Pete’s parents about what he would have expected of her as a wife and what she, herself, expected.
These expectations are one-step removed, like the neon reflection which stands out in this story (quoted beneath the image). Shirley contemplates what she and Pete might have been able to achieve as a couple had their married life not ended so abruptly.
It’s significant that Pete’s observations of his mother included that she “was a grown person with part of a life lived and the habit of secrets before he was conscious of her”. And perhaps even more significant that he and Shirley were aiming for something different. “We agreed to live openly, without secrets, though neither of us knew what a secret was.”
But whether this matter of secrets was rooted in naivete or inexperience, or whether they would have been able to achieve this, as their relationship developed, remains unknown. “They saw a stone wall covered with roses, pink and white and near-white, open, without secrets.” Perhaps we are to see the young couple as being as open as the roses, but how starkly different is this image to the darkened street reflecting the wild neon.
Shirley, too, wanted something different than she witnessed in her own past. “My father had not left us well off, and my mother had given everything she owned to a sect that did not believe in blood transfusions. She expected the end of the world, and would not eat an egg unless she had first met the hen.”
There must have been secrets there, too, in order for Shirley’s mother to have become so preoccupied with the genesis of her breakfast ingredients.
“The steep street under rain was black as oil. Everything was reflected upside down. The neon signs of the change office and the pharmacy swam deeply in the pavement.”
So we are left to wonder whether, if this is where Shirley and Pete were headed, whether Pete’s sudden death is simply a shortcut to the disappointments and sorrow which awaited them. Were they fortunate to have avoided the grey, middle-aged world?
“So real life, the grey noon with no limits, had not yet begun. I distrusted real life, for I knew nothing about it. It was the middle-aged world without feeling, where no one was loved.”
Readers suspect from the start that this will be a dramatic story, with an accident at the heart of it all, but it’s actually a rather quiet story. The actual event, the tangible loss, is like a reflection of some future sadness. What exists and what might have existed are reflected and refracted until it seems as though the sorrow is immersive, not stemming from one incident in particular.
“How could I write to someone I hardly knew about someone else who did not exist?”
Is this Shirley’s secret, that she never really knew Pete, only thought that she might, someday?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the eighth story in The End of the World. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story, next week: “The Prodigal Parent”.
The Other Paris (TOP) / The Picnic (TOP) / About Geneva (TOP) / Acceptance of Their Ways (MHiB) / My Heart is Broken (MHiB) / An Unmarried Man’s Summer (MHiB) / The End of the World / The Accident / Malcolm and Bea (TCoL) / The Prodigal Parent AUGUST 21, 2018 / The Wedding Ring (TCoL) / New Year’s Eve AUGUST 28, 2018 / In the Tunnel SEPTEMBER 4, 2018