Under a thin layer of fine white hair, his skin was almost transparent. The blue veins at his temple seemed terribly fragile, like antique porcelain too delicate to withstand a touch. He walked with a ghostly shuffle, sometimes pretending to stumble to make everyone jump in alarm.
He’d walk every day from the house on Shiel Avenue to the “American Store,” explaining to anyone who’d listen that the proprietors were cousins of his. Nearly everyone in Bundoran was in fact related to Bilshie by lineage or by marriage, or, as he’d always add, “…by drink.”
He’d work his way along the main street the way that a seasoned politician works a room, having a word with everyone, dropping hints, collecting information, telling the same jokes that he’d told for ninety-three years. “Oh, yes, I know her. She’s mad about me. It’s my money she’s after.”
He never seemed to make much of his portrait on the outside wall of the Bridge Bar, a mural depicting him in full regalia with the ceremonial neckpiece of the Lord Mayor of Bundoran. His real pride was the booth and stool at the Shellhouse Bookmakers, where an engraved plaque warned the run-of-the-mill customers:
He placed bets on the horses every day, but his winnings and losses were shrouded in secrecy. Unlike the tipsters and television addicts, Bilshie kept his fortunes to himself.
At the card table he pretended to be the clumsy old senex, dropping cards and seeming not to be aware of the wagers. Apparently oblivious to the ebb and flow of the game, he’d recite poems, sing show-tunes, and kiss the fingers of the ladies with shameless, moist flattery. Through some combination of charm and selectively-reorganised poker hands, he always managed to go home with money in his pocket, defying anyone to be crass enough to call his elegant bluff.
He seldom sat at the bar in the Railway Pub, choosing instead the upright seats along the wall. Powers and white lemonade was to Bilshie what the Papa Doble was to Hemingway – not a drink as much as a signature, an escutcheon. He disdained the daily banter among the Regulars about the Word Wheel in the newspaper – witty anagrams like A L O R R G U T E – unless he knew the answer, or somebody told him, in which case he’d gaze up at the ceiling and announce Yes! I have it! – inferring some sort of divine revelation.
It was the craic that Bilshie was after, going straight for the jugular. McNulty (the publican) wouldn’t give you a fright if he was a ghost. Marian Fitzgerald – now, there’s a lovely woman. She dedicates a song to me on the radio every week. Peter, why are you always interrupting other people’s conversations?
With a directness that would make sensitive souls cringe, Bilshie would stir the pot – master of the revels, the old lion in his den.
Bilshie would drink a Powers and lemonade in Brennan’s Pub from time to time, usually in the evenings. One Monday evening we found him ensconced in one of the seats along the wall, never turning his back to the audience. Someone explained to him that the Writers’ Group was meeting in a back room.
“I’m a poet myself,” Bilshie offered. He waited for someone to ask him before he recited:
In a garden fair, ‘neath the summer sky,
To a cottage by the sea
There came a beautiful butterfly
And a great big bumblebee
It was love at first sight, and his hopes soared high
As he made his passionate plea,
“Oh, marry me, beautiful butterfly
And make me the happiest bee.”
“I would if I could,” she said with a sigh,
“But it never could be, you see,
For I (gasp) am the child of a butterfly,
And you are the son of a bee.”
On a rainy afternoon in the Railway, I asked Bilshie to recite his poems so that I could write them down. He had undergone surgery for a broken hip, and his energy was waning. We sat at the far end of the bar, uncharacteristically on bar-stools and out of the limelight, both a little drunk, trying to hear each other over the blather of the television while Bilshie struggled to remember the words. I wrote down what I could hear, thinking that I’d fill in the blanks from memory, or that I’d ask him about the missing words the next time I’d see him. But I never saw him again.
In addition to the Bee-and-Butterfly verses, Bilshie wrote the three poems that follow here. If anyone can remember the missing words, please fill them in:
I look upon this world and wonder
Why this turmoil, why this strife?
Reason has been rent asunder
And madness merges with the night.
Perhaps a passing generation
Has sown the seeds of discontent.
The answer is not mine to reason
Conjecture is for recompense.
Salome dances once again
With wanton look and wild desire
Ask not our heads in retribution
But save us from the cleansing fire
The answer lies in each man’s heart
Let each one silently applaud
Be guided by the hand of God.
In the long silent watches of the night
When time stands still, and darkness all-engulfing
Waking moments fill
Sorrowing at being born
The veil of pain is rent
By healing hands on fevered brow
And tired brain begins to understand – all peaceful now
With constant joy we view the breaking dawn
Relief exalts us; hope will be reborn
Indebted to the healing hands of nurse
Forgive us for that vile unspoken curse.
I dreamed that I died,
And to heaven did go
And where did you come from?
They wanted to know.
Said I, “From Bundoran.”
St. Peter did stare.
Says he, “Come inside –
You’re the first one from there!”
William (“Bilshie”)Travers, 1913-2006