Sunday, November 04, 2012

My friend Ed

This page is normally reserved for fatuous things, but today, unfortunately, the fates have aligned to give me reason to be serious.

My good friend Ed Drummond-Baxter, laterly Lieutenant Edward Drummond-Baxter of the 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles, died in Afghanistan on Tuesday. This is obviously a huge shock to everyone who knew him, and a good number of tears are being shed for him by his friends around the world as we speak. How he was killed is well known now, and I'm sure everyone who knows him can speak to the surrealness of seeing his cheeky face plastered on the covers of newspapers, on news websites. Part of me didn't even believe what had happened until I saw him on the BBC website, eyebrow cocked rakishly in a Roger Moore fashion, as was his typical pose.

The news was broken to me by Ed's close friend Henry on Tuesday night, and I took it upon myself to contact everyone I could who knew him in Japan, just to let them know personally, so they didn't have to read it in the papers on Wednesday, or worse, not know at all, until months down the line they google him just to find out what he's been up to, and find out the tragic news.

In his 29 years, Ed covered a lot of ground. He lived in three countries (that I know of), spoke pretty decent Japanese and Nepalese, and had worked as a teacher and a banker before he took up soldiering, his life's ambition. It was the part of Ed's life when he was a teacher that I got to know him.

I think it must have been September 2005 when I first met him, in Gifu, Japan, and I immediately marked him out as a threat. I was getting used to being "the Scottish guy" in town, and was enjoying the latitude having an accent that wasn't American was giving me. People just love a guy with an accent. So when they told me there was another Scottish guy in our area, I started to worry. Imagine how worried I was when Ed walked in, looking like a tonked up Orlando Bloom, all swagger and charm and peekaboo chest hair. He was basically our answer to James Bond. Luckily, his Scottish accent was virtually non-existent, so we became fast friends.

I can honestly say, I have never had a friend like Ed. We grew up in the exact same country, but to me he was frightfully exotic. He was very old-fashioned, like a man out of time - an adventurer from a distant and lively past where the British Empire was alive and well. I found it very amusing, at first, to have an Eton-educated pal who referred to me as "old boy" in a non-ironic fashion. We bonded over a shared love of Bond movies (he'd be really angry to be missing Skyfall) and military history. This, combined with the fact that my girlfriend (now wife) Kaki adopted him as a little brother - women always seemed to want to mother him - meant I saw quite a lot of him.

The more I got to know Ed, the more I liked him. When I first met him, I was awed by his glamorous lifestyle - for instance Ed's verdict on Prince William being simply "he's changed", and the fact that he literally lived in a castle - but after a while I got to know the guy behind all of this. He was a surprisingly vulnerable individual. What I had taken for overconfidence when I first met him was actually just smoke and mirrors, masking an affable, kind, but often awkward young man. I very often felt that when he didn't know exactly what to say, his go-to response was simply to smile and be handsome. And it worked all the time. There was something of the lost little boy to him, which is why I think Kaki took to him so well. It was why I liked him so much, too, because when he let his guard down it was impossible not to be drawn in by his simple decency and old-world civility.

That's not to say being his friend was easy. I have never met an individual in my life who was so singularly bad at correspondence. You could text him and wait weeks for a response. He could be so scatterbrained when it came to simple things like keeping in touch. If I could have hired him a secretary, I would have. That's to say nothing of the instances where he dropped off the grid, sometimes for weeks at a time. One time we didn't see him for a month, and when he eventually reappeared he simply shrugged and told us he'd felt like going to the gym. So he had. Every night. For a month. Without seeing anyone. To know and love Ed was to accept his disappearing act, and after a while we got used to it.

Ed played his posh upbringing for laughs, and enjoyed messing with people's expectations. He was so polite and well-spoken, that it would always raise a shriek when he said something absolutely scurrilous. Kaki was particularly amused once, when Ed was dating a Japanese girl (whose name I forget) and another pretty young lady caught Ed's eye. Although we knew he was not the cheating type, Kaki called him out on his eyeballing the girl, but Ed simply purred "Just because I'm on a diet doesn't mean I can't look at the menu." This was just the kind of occasional ribaldry that kept us on our toes. Other Ed phrases that have permanently entered our vocabulary are "saucy mare" and "minx". My particular favourite catchphrase of Ed's was, quite often, when we were in the midst of some mildly debauched drinking behaviour, usually cackling manically, he would raise his glass like Bacchus, and in his authoritative voice demand "more wine!"

Everyone has their favourite Ed story. I'm particularly amused at the memory of the time at Kashimo when Ed attempted to scale the walls of the wood cabin we were in, and promptly fell off, breaking his arm. He then insisted if he simply kept the arm elevated, it would probably be OK by morning. This was not the case, although he slept all night with the mangled limb hoisted above his head. Another good Ed tale involves his well-known resemblance to Orlando Bloom. Two young Japanese girls, shrieking, rushed over to him, chanting Mr Bloom's name, and demanding he gave them an autograph. Not wanting to disappoint them, Ed simply signed the autograph and posed for photos with the girls.

Ed had wanted to go into the army as long as I had known him, probably as long as anyone can remember. I remember one night in Tokyo, sitting alone with him in a Thai restaurant, drinking continual rounds of beer and talking about his time in the reserves and how much he wanted to serve abroad. I think he was born to be a leader too. I recall, on one occasion, my friend Jason and I drunkenly decided that if Ed were ever to become King of Scotland, we'd be his vassals. When we told him this, he didn't laugh like we thought he would, in fact he seemed strangely touched by the notion.

All good things must come to an end, and after two years, we departed Japan, but Ed continued to drift in and out of our lives like an impeccable ghost. The next time we saw him (after another one of his lengthy off-the-grid periods) was in London. He was working for a "vaguely crooked" bank, and really not enjoying it at all. He told me he'd sold a bunch of uranium to the Chinese, and wasn't really sure he should have done so. First world problems, eh? He was living in this massive five-storey mansion in Regent's Park he was housesitting for a friend. He didn't know how to turn the heating off so we all just sat there, baking, with the windows open, in the middle of summer. That always makes me think of how hapless he could be sometimes. It was good that he could be hapless, otherwise he would have been too perfect.

The last time we saw him in the flesh was when Kaki and I got married in 2009. He took a break from - in his own words - "bombing through central Asia" to come to Fife and see us. It was a whirlwind day, and I regret I didn't get the chance to talk to him as much as I should have. My particular regret is 'humorously' cutting in while he was dancing with Kaki, and interrupting an important conversation.

The next few years were hard for us. Our daughter, Isla, died shortly after her birth in May 2010, and as such we weren't concentrating on keeping in touch with Ed. In fact, we heard nothing from him until 2011, when we heard he was shipping out with the Gurkhas for his first tour. I'd never heard him so happy and excited. He was truly doing what he was meant to be doing. He loved and admired his men and was proud to be a part of the history and tradition of the regiment. The next time I talked to him he had been through the wringer, and although he assured us with the Gurkhas by his side he was in no danger at all, it was clear he had seen some life-changing things. In fact, this new Ed was a very different sort of Ed. It was clear from our conversations he had matured a lot as a person. I think I would have enjoyed very greatly getting to know this new Ed. He was even talking of coming to Toronto to visit us when his tour was over. Sadly it was not to be.

I could share anecdotes about Ed with you all day. I'm writing this primarily to reminisce with those who shared these moments with us, but also in case anyone else who knew him stumbles over these words, and wants to know more about a a period of his life they weren't a part of.

I'm sad, because these memories are all we have left of a fantastic human being, a good, caring friend, a witty, charming, passionate man, who had so much more fun left to have, so many more goals to accomplish, so much more left to give. I'm angry because of the manner in which he was taken from us, angry at the men who committed this act of cowardice.

But I'm also happy, and honoured, because I had the opportunity to know him, to live alongside him, laugh with him, albeit for a short while. I'm happy because he lived, he travelled the world, he saw beautiful things, met people who cared for him and will remember him for the rest of their lives. I'm happy because he had the love of a good woman, and he loved her, even if it didn't end up how either of them had expected and planned. I will never forget my friend Ed, the things he stood for and represented, all the adventures we shared together, and the joy and happiness he gave us. Goodbye to a consummate gentleman, a principled aide to his fellow man, a wry wit and caring friend.