I first met Will in a tutorial of our 1st year Earth Systems class. It followed an impressive opening lecture that set this planet in its galactic and universal context, which in turn set the context for our entire year-long course, exploring at a cursory level (for tertiary study anyway) the various systems that comprise Earth’s planetary aparatus, and those of its populations. I picked the first seat in the room that was empty and it was the one next to Will. Following instructions to pair up for our assigned tasks, we made our introductions and got down to work. Will, being socially and administratively speaking, on the front foot, worked out what needed to be done and made gentle, solicitous suggestions for how to get there. I, still not really sure where to fit in with the whole Geography decision, was happy to have someone drive.
From that first tentative partnership, there appeared to mushroom a tacit agreement hereafter to more or less get through Earth Systems, and all consequent Geography courses, together. For that first year, which in fact was the 2nd year at university for us [having both languished in the Commerce Faculty for the year prior], our social lives hardly coincided. We didn’t meet outside of class time, and yet, in class, we almost seemed inseparable. Geography time was Will time. Mostly we talked Geography, but when we weren’t, Will would sometimes narrate snippets of the goings-on at his hall of residence and campus life in general which I found facsinating for his curious and particular (even then), for lack of a better word, world view. Like everyone else who arrived at college, free of parental supervision and surrounded by others similarly liberated, Will reveled in college social life, but disdained some of its well-established predilections. What? You don’t drink coffee? Dude, everyone drinks coffee. How else to get through all nighters or the morning after, whatever it is you spent all night doing? Well, not Will. Some would construe this as contrarian, but I found out it was part of an esoteric brand of integrity that Will possessed, whereby he held himself intellectually accountable for every position he held. Being Will, he held a definite position on a range of topics, of which coffee was one, and not drinking it, his position.
I think Will enjoyed Earth Systems as much as I did. That is, it was interesting for the scope of information and styles of transmission [each new term a different academic would tag into the teaching spot with their sphere of expertise], without too much being asked of us. With the odd field trip thrown in for increased social stakes, Earth Systems mostly felt, in its own way, like an auxilary of our time there, while other interests and the lingering novelty of university life captured our main attention.
Halfway through 2nd year Geography, our modus operandi having run unchanged with the new academic year, Will floundered in the semester exams for our subject, and decided to cut his losses, dropping Geography altogether. I’d just got a pass. It was somewhat of a shock to both of us. That 1st year belief that paying sub-par attention to words and concepts being levelled at us would be sufficient to later on re-assembling those words to impressive utility in an exam or essay had proved, well, sub-par. It was a kindred folly, that, but one formed from a) having pulled it off before, and b) for both of us, being accustomed to having a kind of intellectual crutch that often exempted us from overly strenuous academic effort. Certainly that was an accurate narrative of my University career so far.
Hence, we lost our common academic ground- Will consolidating his bets on English, while I pulled out of History to gun for, despite the current poor showing, a Geography major. I would see Will now and again when I visited my friends at B&G, and we would, per the social staple of university, sometimes have a coffee. That’s right, sometime in the interim, Will had shifted his paradigms and come to embrace coffee. I never asked why, or if I did I don’t remember and can’t now say, but without recalling the specific details of our first coffee, I remember having a very erudite conversation about the beverage we were consuming and thinking: “that’s a lot of things Will suddenly knows about it, more than I ever cared to find out”.
The details are fuzzy now, but somewhere in that time where we stopped being Geography siamese twins, it came up that Will was part of the University water polo team. I was looking for something extra curricular to occupy spare time and so we started driving out South to the aquatic centre every Friday evening. For months and months, Will sat in my car with a stereo playing the same cassette tape that would switch off every 3 minutes because someone in the car’s past had triggered the anti-theft device and nobody remembered the password. Every 3 minutes, dial the knob off, and back on, to keep listening to the same tape that’d been on since whenever. Who’d steal a tape deck? Well, back in the day… It’d occurred to Will and I later that if we’d been systematic enough about it, for the number of times we’d turned it off and on, we could have punched in enough 4-digit passcode guesses to have gotten it. We would have. Except no one could be bothered to keep a track, and anyway, it was alright for it to be what it was. Most people found it a pain, I didn’t much care, Will probably thought it was a cool existential quirk to differentiate it from other car experiences.
When we’d been at Uni long enough for the revolving vista of Ps, Cs, Ds, and the very occasional HD to seem like the wheels in a hamster cage, changes started coming harder and faster. Or at least the months and years seem to start blending indeterminately. I know these things happened, but am close to ignorant now on the order. We both went on separate European adventures, I resumed and finished some mandatory military time in Singapore, Will finally moved out of college [precipitated I think by a burgeoning love affair, which would in time transition into marriage, with Oona], I graduated and moved away from Canberra for work, and then back again and then permanently to Sydney.
In those transitional days, somehow despite the looming realities of life after undergrad studies, and long after we’d both finished with the water polo team, we’d still be meeting up every now and again, especially when we happened to be in the same city. It was around this time that I started hearing from Will little well-plumbed notions of what it was like [although it never explicitly came out like that] to be in love. For him, the talking point was never the emotional phenomenon of it, although he doubtless had a cogent thesis for that as well. Rather, he spoke about how being with Oona entailed changes to his way of life, and further, how happily he was willing to make those changes, knowing what he was getting in return. Here was Will, known for having definite views on the world, at times even seeming a bristle brush of views, now softening around the edges, and affording the world a glimpse of his other, gentle, affectionate self. They weren’t exactly easy times for Will. Having not hurtled into an established career path like others in our cohort and hence absent attendant comforts and securities, he nonetheless possessed an underlying contentment in his days from his relationship with Oona.
One day, on one of Will’s trip up to Sydney, usually on the back of a trip up to Wollongong to see Oona’s family, he presented me with a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, from duty free. He raved about the most useful item in his luggage while travelling Europe - a carrier bag for claymore mines someone had smuggled out from the due-for-destruction heap in the military. I’d converted it for carrying small items around campus and it’d somehow gone into Will’s possession. I’d bet though, that the far greater satisfaction he derived from it, apart from its utility and “perfect size for wallet and sunnies”, was the fact that probably no one else in Europe was walking around with a bonafide bomb bag.
After he told me that, Will then also told me he was soon getting married and asked me to be the best man at his wedding. His pitch as I remember it, and I have always remembered it, surprised me greatly. He said, that everyone else [by this I supposed he meant his other male friends] had come and gone, while we had kept up our friendship. Well, for all my incredulity, it was probably as close to a sentimental statement as I had ever heard from him.
After he asked that and I had happily agreed, he also, slightly sheepishly, asked if I would double up as photographer. I don’t remember when it was he said this, but his pronouncement that he wouldn’t have posed for anyone else met with a similar amount of skepticism, although I said yes to that as well. I found out later, and part of that discovery was his blasé attitude to the photo-taking session at their wedding, completely at odds with wedding parties everywhere, that Will had an almost-acute aversion to camera lenses. He did though, as promised, pose dutifully for all the couple shots.
Wedding Day came. I drove down early in the morning from Sydney as part of a frenetic weekend of activity, having to leave mid-afternoon before all the festivities had concluded, to get back for the next event. In retrospect, it was ill-conceived of me, the best man, to only have so little time with the groom on game day. I don’t think I discharged all of my duties to Will, especially all the parts about taking the load of the day off him. I did perform though , the one traditional duty he had already excused me from – the best man’s speech. The only things I remember about it are that Will was duly and truly surprised when I stood up at the reception to deliver it, that I dropped some high-sounding platitudes about love which seemed to go down alright, and that I bungled the toast when I asked everyone to stay seated, since the cultural instinct was to get to your feet for the toast. Well, we got through. I saw yet another side of Will that day, or you might say it was the side already unfolding, when I stood next to him with Oona coming down the aisle. Will allowed that moment to overwhelm him, so he could give his very honest emotional expression, to what his girl walking down the aisle meant for him. To wit, all the things that love can do to you. And should.
After the wedding, distance continued to keep us out of the loop of each others’ lives. Will was cardinally unimpressed with the then-exponentially expanding technology for conversely shrinking the world i.e. internet, and mobiles and then internet on mobiles. Hence, distance was left alone – unaltered, unshrunk, bridged only by the occasional trip I made to Canberra or he to Sydney. We may have exchanged 3 emails in all of our 20-year friendship, and he only condescended to mobile technology well after we’d graduated from University, and even then he kept his phone at arm’s length. A luddite, and probably quite happy about it.
My move to Hong Kong ended the relative proximity of Sydney – Canberra, so the occasional face time either way became just the one visit in 2008 [furlough 08], where I interfaced for the first time with Will as a father [to 2-yr old Hamish]. It seemed like an innocuous event, a brief reunion, but when we met up the next time, 8 years later, both of us were trotting out minute details of what happened that day with relish. I like to think he cherished having been able to share with me the happy and incomparable estate of possessing a family, and I very much loved sharing in it.
The intervening 8 years were veritably distant ones for our friendship. We lost almost all contact and got immersed in what were our admittedly very different worlds. I moved further out into China sometime in those years. But I came to Canberra in 2017 [furlough 17] with wife and child in tow, and fortuitously, struck communications gold by successfully reaching Oona and Will. We rocked up to the Douglas house for an afternoon. I was a new father then, revelling in it, and kept getting struck with the thought – Will’s been at this for a decade now! He’s done the school thing, the discipline thing, the PTA thing, etc. I itched to be where he was.
For all the differences in the shapes of our lives - our aspirations, challenges, choices, work - for a couple of hours, it seemed the only thing that mattered was that Will and I were there with our wives and our children and we were together. Later, it would seem like my being back in Hong Kong reverted our friendship to the out-of-mindedness of distance, but while we were at Will’s home, it felt like, without any effort on either of our parts, just by dint of us both being family men, our friendship had grown, upon contact, into a new and very comfortable dimension. I loved it, the thought gave me a buzz the whole time I was in the country and after.
April 2017 was the last time I saw Will. Thinking about him now, is what stops me in the middle of whatever I'm doing.