Oscar Pistorius was such a charmer that, in his company, it always took a long while to move beneath the beguilingly smooth surface to reach somewhere different and more complex.
I met him twice, most recently in 2011, when, during an interview for the Guardian about his past life and future hopes, he seemed relentlessly engaging. In a setting as unnatural as a one-to-one interview, he was at ease not simply as a result of his fame and practiced manner in handling such engagements so many times before. Pistorius spoke about his disability and dreams, about his imposing rivals and enduring travails, with a thoughtful intent which transcended the usual promotional routine.
A few years previously, he had been just as interesting and, helpfully for me, apparently interested in a relaxed discussion that eventually turned into a conversation between two South Africans about our respective home towns of Pretoria and Germiston. I was born into apartheid and lived the first 23 years of my life under that draconian system. By November 1986, when Pistorius was born, I'd left the country to escape military conscription after spending two years as a raw English teacher in Soweto.
South Africa, then, was in the midst of brutal repression. Between July 1985 and June 1987, more than 25,000 people were detained under a state of emergency. Thousands more died in township battles between young black dissidents and the white army.
A more private struggle had engulfed the Pistorius family during that dark period in the country's history. After our second meeting I wrote that, following his birth, "Oscar was perfect from his chubby thighs up to his bright little brain. But he had a genetic disorder in both his legs. Each was missing its fibula, the long bone running from the side of the knee joint down to the ankle. His parents confronted a stark choice. Should they prepare their child for a life in a wheelchair or could they face sanctioning a double amputation?"
Pistorius spoke movingly about how, in his 20s, he could empathise with the trauma they faced in making that decision. He also laughed when he said how relieved he was that his parents, Henke and Sheila Pistorius, had decided that both his legs should be cut off when he was just 11 months old. I wrote that, "within another six months, a tottering toddler took his first steps on a set of fibreglass pegs. Oscar's childhood was still bookended by heartache; his parents divorced when he was six and, far more devastatingly, his mother died when he was just 15. But he developed startling self-belief as, inspired by his mother, he played rugby, water-polo and tennis not far below junior provincial standard. He only discovered running after he had been injured in a rugby match."
He recalled his bruising youth eloquently; and few of his anecdotes were dulled by a sense of repetition. But on both occasions his calm equanimity was dented briefly by a more residual sadness. He was shaken by the near-fatal speedboat crash he suffered in 2009 on the Vaal River, about an hour south of Johannesburg, when he smashed into a pier, which broke his ribs, jaw and eye-socket and left him in need of 172 stitches to his face. He was in a coma for three days. "I was so dof [stupid] it just makes me so sad now," Pistorius murmured.
If he was anxious, with the tape rolling, to avoid detailing the extent of his drunkenness behind the wheel of his boat, he seemed acutely aware of how, in a fit of giddy madness, he had almost ended his life. "I came close to ruining everything and that's very scary and sobering," he said before switching to a more upbeat mantra of how he had learnt an invaluable lesson which would underpin his future achievements. It was possible, then, to imagine that his surging celebrity was more tangled than it initially appeared.
Pistorius looked troubled towards the end of our second meeting in London, 15 months before he fulfilled his audacious bid to become the first Paralympic runner to compete in an Olympic Games, when we spoke about "the chunks" taken from him during the most painful moments of his life. "Fifteen is a tough age to lose your mother," he said, his usually sunny and handsome face clouding. "It's strange. In her will she said we must throw a party when she passed away, and so we did. We celebrate her every year, but we [his brother and sister] make an issue of not calling each other that day and being all morbid. The way we handle her loss is that we're more grateful for the time we had with her."
He spoke in more detail about what his mother had meant to him – and how, unlike his father, she had given him hope and direction. Pistorius found it difficult to talk openly about his dad: "My father wasn't around much when we grew up. I saw him seldom – and it's the same now. He lives and works very far from me on a dolomite mine."
I asked Pistorius if he and his dad spoke on the phone? "Mmmm, not much. We chat about once a month. He's a cool guy but he's more of a mate. He's not much of a parent. It's just life."
Twenty-one months later, and in the wake of Pistorius being charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, I returned to those transcripts. The violent death of Steenkamp, who is the real victim of the shooting near Pretoria, matters far more than Pistorius' dramatic fall and sobbing appearance in court. But it was still hard to ignore my scribbled notes after that last interview – and to see the underlined words of "troubled" and "uneasy" alongside the section on his father.
Yet we were still shocked on Thursday morning when waking to the news of Pistorius' apparent involvement in his girlfriend's murder. Over breakfast we told our kids and their usual pre-school stupor was replaced by wide-eyed surprise. Our 11-year-old son looked intensely puzzled. "Oscar?" he said. "Really?" He asked quietly if Pistorius had confessed to the crime.
"Not yet," I said. The truth will emerge but, on Thursday, it was more poignant to remember the school project our son, Jack, had undertaken with such gusto last year. Asked to write an essay about his most inspirational hero, he had sidestepped his Arsenal favourites to concentrate on "The Life & Times of Oscar Pistorius". We had spoken then about the fact that Pistorius was, after Nelson Mandela, the most famous and admired South African.
Jack liked the story Pistorius had told me about "the cool stuff" an Icelandic company were making with prosthetic feet. "One particular advanced foot is worth thousands of pounds," Pistorius said. "It can make 55 readings a second, so if you're walking uphill it senses the incline and lifts the [prosthetic] foot higher. It also has a USB [socket] in it. I plugged my iPod into it and this scientist [in Reykjavik] came in. They're very serious and he shouted 'No! You can't do that!' I said, 'Listen, you should put a memory stick in here and I could load my music into my leg.' I thought it was quite funny; he didn't. So I took it out but it had charged my iPod. That night we went for dinner and I still had these feet on. I was relaxed and had my legs crossed at the ankles. But, when it was time to leave, it turned out that the batteries in the one foot had gone flat. It wouldn't move and, of course, this was the foot that had charged my iPod.'"
My son understood enough about my own past, in a society once deformed by discrimination, to realise how much it meant to my parents, and even me, that the world's greatest Paralympian was a boy from Pretoria. South Africans, despite the coarsening violence of the country's history and current reality, can be sentimental and hopelessly romantic at times. And so it was often trumpeted that Pistorius was a gleaming symbol of South Africa's past resistance to adversity, and of its future embrace of equality. His life-story was often told as a parable of hope that the country really was in the process of remaking itself after apartheid. Personally, I just admired the fact that, at least in our interviews, he brushed aside crude myth-making and explained that acceptance mattered most to him.
"I don't want to be treated differently to any other athlete," Pistorius told me. "If I do badly in a competition, I want people to be honest. The same goes if I do well. That's the only thing that motivates me – the fact that I'm an athlete. I'm a runner."
He could have been a black cricketer or rugby player, saying that, after apartheid and accusations of excessive positive discrimination in a quota system meant to reform South Africa's sporting landscape, he just wanted to be considered as an ordinary person rather than as a symbol of something deeper.
Last year, in South Africa, I heard lots of stories about Pistorius. People said he had changed, and immersed himself in a world of surreal celebrity. All his jokes about the attention he received from women took on a darker hue amid much speculative hearsay.
My parents, who are 83 and 85, wisely advised that I resist making assumptions on the basis of gossip. "I really like Oscar," my mother said. My dad nodded and made a plain but heartfelt claim. "He's done some great things."
So it felt strange on Thursday, after the kids had dashed for the school bus on a wintry English morning, to phone my other home, just outside Johannesburg, and talk to my old parents about the travails of young Oscar. They live in a retirement complex now – but it's not entirely different to the gated community in which Pistorius made his home. It's definitely not swanky like Silver Lakes, but their retirement village is also manned by black security guards and dominated by high gates and walls. But none of the pensioners, unlike Pistorius, seem to carry guns.
It turned out local radio shows had been jammed all day with callers phoning in their own overblown opinions or anecdotal evidence of the arsenal of weapons, including a machine gun, that Pistorius had apparently collected. "The country's going a little crazy again," my mother said wryly. I could, at least, tell her that the response over here was not much less fevered.
We're both far too old now, my mother and me, to have inspirational heroes of our own, but I did remind her again that Oscar had been such a hit in Jack's school assignment. She was glad that our boy had seen the very best in Oscar Pistorius in those now distant days when, as the Blade Runner, he made history.
"I always liked Oscar," my mother said wistfully. "But then we all did, didn't we?"
Donald McRae's Under Our Skin: A White Family's Journey Through South Africa's Darkest Days is published this month by Simon & Schuster. Buy it for £16 at guardianbookshop.co.uk
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image: © david jones