2 January, 2014, Templestowe, Melbourne, Australia
I first met Daff in the Minter Ellison boardroom at Market Street on a hot February day in 1996. We had what I remember as a brief, hilarious chat before the event took a turn when Daff fainted unconscious right in the middle of the party. When his eyes flicked open, there were about fifty people huddled around him and he had about two seconds to think before throwing a hand out from his position lying flat on his back. ‘Chris Daffey,’ he said, without missing a beat.
I knew he was something amazing then and there. I didn’t get to speak to him any more at that function because, in Daff’s words, ‘HR had me in the lifts and out of the building before you could say “public liability insurance”. I later found out that Daff wasn’t as immediately sure about me. Like me, he kept this document with mugshots and profiles of his fellow articled clerks. Unlike me, he pencilled a first impression against each name. ‘R-sole’ [spelled capital R sole] was the designation for future friend James Edwards. I was granted slightly more wiggle room, assessed merely as ‘Possible R-Sole’.
Articles began and so did our friendship. We’d meet at the level one billiards table every day, and spend hours drinking Coke, eating sandwiches and attempting to roll pool balls down the table in such a way that the number would ‘hang’ perfectly still on the side. ‘Ugly’ we’d say when the axis scrambled. ‘Ooooooooh,’ we’d say if we got a perfect release. Whoever got more ‘Ooooohs’ over the lunchtime won. There was always a game with Daff. And always a winner.
It was the early days of email, and god knows how many billable units were wasted as Daff corresponded, not just with me, but with a growing number of Minters colleagues caught in the beam of his charisma. Minters called its email system the ‘Minternet’, and Daff quickly worked out that the template had one important flaw. An unscrupulous sender could just spacebar his own name out of the ‘from’ window, and write the name of any other person he might want to pretend to be.
The result was sheer mayhem. I spent three hours flirting with a girl, thinking I was some chance for a date, without knowing Daff was emailing in falsetto from his cubical on level 8. I then attempted to get Daff back, and indeed had a notable success posing as his then girlfriend Kerry, but I was a man out of my depth. ‘The only thing that mitigates my joy is the knowledge you will get me back,’ I wrote in my moment of triumph, which was exactly the same thing he wrote when the inevitable occurred. Yep, a phone message from my awfulest client wasn’t actually from him. Suspecting nothing, I hastily rang the awfulest client, pleading with him not to take the stupidest course of imaginable. ‘What are you talking about?’ he said to me. ‘What the f*ck are you talking about?’ Yep, Not for the first time, Daff had gone too far.
Amidst all the drudgery of that articles year, we had so much fun. There had been mid-year articled clerk revues before, but Daff turned ours into an extravaganza. In one sketch, he used artfully positioned pot-plants, photocopier lids, chair backs and assorted paraphernalia to film every articled clerk getting about his or her lawyerly tasks, naked. I’ll never forget Ben Liu on his tummy in centrefold pose, his dignity protected by the ‘Hot Stocks’ edition of the BRW. There was the bit in which Daff and I stormed the front foyer of Blakes in chicken suits. There was a sign in the copy room that said ‘Don’t Abuse the Photocopiers’ so Daff thought it would be funny if we found an old one, and filmed ourselves smashing it up with sledge-hammers in the middle of a field, to the Carmina Burana. ‘Twelve Angry Articled Clerks’ we called it. It was such a good time. I sometimes think it was the experience making that mid-year production together that encouraged both of us to pursue creative careers.
Today, I have such conflicted feelings about Daff’s decision to write his novel. It was an agony to watch its progress, not because the output wasn’t terrific, it almost always was, but because the words flowed like treacle. In true Daff style, he kept spreadsheets documenting his daily word count, and the numbers were sometimes in two figures. He’d ring me up, asking for a preference between two words. ‘It doesn’t matter, Daff’ I’d say. ‘Nobody will notice. Just move on.’ But he couldn’t. It had to be perfect. One year became two years, which became three years. He spent one of those at my parents’ holiday place at Red Hill, calling me every night at 5pm when he went outside to watch the rabbits. Daff loved animals. The one member of our family who still doesn’t know he’s gone is his beloved Charley Dog.
The novel, when it finally came out in 2004, was brilliant. The working title was ‘ImpressingJenny’ but it was eventually called A Girl, A Smock, and a Simple Plan. After all those years writing, the publisher assigned a woman who mainly edited gardening titles to whipper snipper Daff’s prose. He fought a lot of battles in the edit, won enough for him to be justly proud of the novel, but perhaps lost the war. He said in his letter that this awful disease has been with him eight years. Like I said, I have really conflicted feelings about this book.
A Girl, A Smock was part-memoir, part-fiction and truly hilarious. Daff’s recall of the primary school universe was phenomenal, and those painstakingly sculpted, comedy maximised-sentences were indeed very nearly perfect. One of my many favourite bits is this:
“You see the way I looked at it, the hardest part about primary school for Lucas must have been his lack of preparation for it. When he first strolled through the gates on his way to Mrs MacCauley’s Prep Grade M, he would have had no idea whatsoever that he’d been handed a business card that said, ‘Lucas Tordby – Dropkick’. In fact, like almost all of us, he would have had quite the opposite idea. Years of being smothered by parental affection and encouragement leaves the average pre-schooler thinking he is the smartest, best-looking, most advanced ‘little bundle of joy’ in the world ever. Parents rarely opt for honesty in assessing their children. No mother ever turns to her six year old daughter and says, ‘Marcy, you’re as dumb as you are hideous, but I Iove you anyway.’ It’s just praise praise and more praise until every little trooper turning up for their first day of school thinks they’re God’s gift to humanity. If only parents fessed up to the lies they’ve told before they packed their kids off to school. If only fathers grabbed their sons by the shoulders before they sailed out the door and said:
“You know all that stuff your mother and I told you about being cute and clever and adorable? Well it’s a bunch of cobblers. You’re actually a bit of a bonehead, Son, and you might cop a little stick out there because of it.’
Daff was so naturally funny, so natural at everything. Writing probably wasn’t even his top talent – his aptitude for maths was frightening, and he could sort and evaluate arguments like no person I’ve ever met. He often said he should have done law-science. These last couple of years I’ve been telling him to become a politician, or a political adviser, or a speech writer, or a barrister, or a public speaking coach or a management consultant or a stock market analyst. His beloved Pop trained in Daff an ear for injustice, and so many of my political views were nurtured by his eloquence for a cause. He could also go completely off tap. Daff had literally hundreds of yahoo email addresses, all of which have been blocked by Andrew Bolt’s blog moderators. Not many people know this, but he was also on Twitter, trading blows with right wing trolls on #auspol. The reason you might not be following him is also quintessentially Daff. When Charmaine joined Twitter and racked up more followers than the then barely-tweeting @chrisdaffey, Daff said that part of her success could be credited to being a woman with a nice looking profile pic. To prove himself right, he took to Twitter as an unbelievably hot looking New Zealand woman named Libby, who just happened to love footy. Dreamteam and politics. Within months, he had a thousand followers. He also received a remarkable number of coffee or dinner requests from left leaning, footy loving males, some of whom were prominent media figures. Libby always declined. She wasn’t that sort of girl.
Some of Libby’s most popular tweets:
“If you watch the Die Hard series backwards, an old bald guy slowly learns how to act.”
“Gina Rinehart launches ‘Seven Step Success In Business’ course. Step 1: Inherit billion dollar mining empire. Steps 2-7: Enjoy.”
“Nick Riewoldt claims ‘outside forces’ destabilising club: “All we want to do is train hard, play footy & take pics of each others nads” #afl”
“Q: What does @AndrewBolt say when he sees himself naked in the mirror? A: God damn it, it’s leaning left again!”
Our friendship was often quite competitive. In our Dreamteam head to head, his team, the Hindsight Mayors leads 10-1 against my team, the Maribynong Mustangs. It is now a small comfort to know that in a time of desperation, this score-line brought untold joy. He once asked, ‘how much better a footballer do you think you are than me,’ and I said, ‘Put it this way Daff, if I toss this ball in the air for the rest of time, it will be up to me to decide whether you ever get to touch it again.’ We played the game for the next five minutes. It ended with him round-arming me across the back of the head. We went through a phase of entering 25 words or less competitions, and for New Year’s Eve in the Year 2000, Daff won a seven course dinner for ten on the balcony at Southbank overlooking the Yarra and the fireworks. I came second and won a slab of Crown Lager and a bottle opener. When he rang to tell me, I was incredulous, moaning to him that his entry was the worst example of corporate toadying, and that mine was clearly superior. He eventually shut me up by saying, ‘Willo. I’m inviting you! For eff’s sake! If anyone should be complaining it’s me. I’ve beaten you into a long second and you’re a slab and a bottle opener up.’ What a night that ended up being.
Like Dods, Daff would occasionally let me know I was still a ‘new friend’ who still had work to do to get to that Ben, Lawson and Al A-level. Through sheer weight of time together, I got there. During Dreamteam season, we spoke literally every day. In the off season we cooled it off to two or three times a week. Daff was quite possibly better at being a friend than he was at all the other things combined. There are at least five of us who call Daff our best friend. We each only had one Daff. I told him everything. He prided himself on being ‘the vault’. Nothing any of us confided ever went further than Daff.
In 2004 Daff and I travelled overseas together. It was an amazing few weeks full of stories that have peppered the years since. They include:
- Walking the streets of Paris playing a game Daff invented called ‘Bonsoir or Bonsnub’. You pick a Parisian, and with full eye contact and beaming smile, hit them with an enthusiastic ‘Bonsoir’. If you get a bonsoir back, it is a ‘bonsoir’. If not, it is a ‘bonsnub’. Player with most ‘bonsoirs’ wins. There was always a game and there was always a winner.
- Sprinting drunkenly through the cobblestoned streets of Barcelona at midnight, with Daff shouting ‘you have no cartilages, you have no cartilages’ and me shouting back ‘I will chase you down like a dog’. I did chase him down too. Like a dog.
- Daff walking into a hotel bathroom to discover me asleep on the toilet. ‘Oh god, Willo, he said as he woke me up. ‘It’s our Elvis moment.’
- Getting shot at by a Barcelona street kid with a toy bow and arrow. Daff found the kid in the same place the next day and bought his bow and arrow to give to me as a Christmas present. I gave him DVD copies of ‘El Graduado’ and ‘Adios Mr Chips’.
Daff was the most generous friend I’ve ever known. The presents were always spectacular – a carefully curated assortment of chocolates, a calendar of George W Bushisms, a Playstation 3 for Tam’s and my wedding that I now can hardly look at without crying. He was a big kid who loved kid stuff to the end. Swap cards, figurines, light sabres, Junior mints, endless endless Macdonalds. He spent nearly $1000 on footy cards in the year … 2012. The last time he went to Red Hill he took the skin off his face attempting the steepest part of the hill on a billy cart. No wonder the kids loved him. He played chasey with them like he wanted to, because he actually did. He chased with intent. He chased for hours and hours and hours. It was only the last time he visited that I thought, ‘he’s having to work hard at this today’. I remember telling the kids to give Daff a bit of a rest.
The gift I mentioned on facebook this week is probably the one that means the most to us. When Tam was pregnant with our first, Daff barracked so hard for Polly to be born on his birthday, and when she was, he went around the streets of Melbourne, taking photos to give her so she could know what her city looked like that day. He also gave her newspaper front pages. They were the 24th of January twins, separated 35 years to the day. He even photoshopped his own head on to a baby’s body to put it in his ‘Daff box’. When’s going to be the right day to give her that box, Daff? I can’t believe this is happening.
We all loved you so much, Daff. Polly is wearing the blue butterfly necklace you gave her. She hasn’t said a word to me about it. She just started wearing it as a quiet tribute. Tam is bursting into tears as she plays Wordament, the speed boggle app you got her addicted to. The big Wordament face-off never happened, and now it isn’t going to. Harry, the one you called ‘the circus strongman’ keeps asking ‘is Daff going to come over?’ and I keep having to say that you won’t be coming over now. Jack got to meet you, but now won’t really know you like the others. But I know you were so pleased when he said your name during the last visit. One day I’ll tell him about the sort of person you were. That when he was born in 2011, it was you who read books on cerebral palsy so you could talk to me about it. That it was you who went to this special effort for me. Because you worried how low I was going. And I didn’t do the same for you. Because you didn’t want me to. Because you didn’t want the dynamic of this friendship, this perfect friendship, to change. Because you were the fun one. Well for me, Daff, it has changed, now. I don’t want to be angry, and mostly I’m not, and one day I won’t be at all. How could you have been in so much pain and told so few of us. How could I not have seen it? You say we couldn’t have done anything and I have to believe that we couldn’t. But we’ll never really know if enough was done. How can we?
You once wrote a goodbye for me, Daff. It was for when I was leaving Minters, and it was short and funny — typically brilliant. I’ve kept it along with all your emails from that time. You called it ‘Goodbye Mr Slips’. You dubbed me ‘the William the Conquerer of personal space invasion’. You noted ‘Tony’s tendency to get up close and personal during conversations introduced many lunch companions to the concept of “passive eating”’. You said, ‘Only a fool would sit through a meal with Tony in a suit colour that didn’t match his order.’
They’re the sort of goodbyes we’re supposed to be doing, Daff. Funny, shit-stirring goodbyes. I’m not ready for proper goodbyes. I’m not ready for goodbyes when the jokes have run out. I’m not ready for today. One of the few images I had of old age, was of calling you from a retirement home to complain about Dreamteam. How can we be stuck at 10:1? How can it be forever 10:1?
I’ll miss you so much Daff. My best man and my best friend. I’ll miss you and treasure you for the rest of my life.