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.