Albie came with lovely silks and prints from China to ask for ideas on how to frame them. How I long to possess some of the things. He came for tea and stayed until eleven at night. How quickly he seems to have matured.
Lesley’s diary, Sunday, 22 May 1955
We go to see a theatrical piece based on the Bleek-Lloyd archive, the sole record of the language, customs and thoughts of certain individuals of the /Xam people, a linguistic group of the Bushman gatherers and hunters who inhabited the whole of Southern Africa before the arrival of the various Bantu peoples and, shortly thereafter, the white settlers and colonists. The piece deals with the subjugation, beating and genocide of these unfortunate people and others of their kind, and although moving, it does not, indeed cannot, present the /Xam as themselves, but as us – as modern dancers, modern individuals with high-tech equipment performing before an early 21st-century audience, for the testimony of these early inhabitants of our landscape has become so flattened and smoothed by time and loss of context that it has become a mirror.
In the row immediately behind me is Albie Sachs, who is mentioned in Lesley’s 1955 diary, and with whom I felt I had made a warm contact at a conference at Victoria Falls a few months after Lesley’s death. I greet him and we chat briefly. I mention that I am writing about Lesley and ask whether he would be prepared to grant an interview. He is an exceptionally busy person, but he agrees to an interview.
The interview takes place on a perfect winter’s day, much like some of the days recorded in Lesley’s diary. His home is at Clifton, overlooking First Rock, Second Rock and Third Rock, three granite boulders that stand in the breakers and divide Third from Fourth Beach, forming the tiny beach called Three-and-a-half Beach. The cottage is small, decorated individualistically and with immaculate taste in the modern style. The furniture is expensive and of good quality but not showy, and the place is full of artworks, small paintings and a great variety of figurines, ranging from African carvings to an entire jazz band in miniature. Everything is in its place and care has been taken over its placement. A bright African bead-hanging curtains off a tiny nook with a desk in it. There is a mural on the wall over the kitchen sink depicting a cluttered bookshelf. One of the books on the painted shelf, I notice, is by Albie. Framed by the picture window that looks out onto the tiny courtyard, the fence too is decorated with a lush tropical mural that keys in with the landscape and ocean. The entire ambience is bright and attractive, and speaks of the happiness that comes from the integration of creativity with life. Albie is gracious and intimate without being familiar. We sit facing each other over a red and blue granite counter-top, the feldspar of which gleams with shifting peacock colours in the sunlight.
I plug the mini-disk recorder in, turn it on, and he begins to talk. His memory is better than mine, it seems, and he recollects detail after detail of the days before and around 1955, then goes on to make connections with later experience. We continue for most of the morning.
At the end of the interview, elated, I drive home to Muizenberg. I plug the headphones in and press play. The machine displays the message empty disk.
In the computer world, which I inhabited for eight years in the 1980s, it is said that there are two kinds of memory errors: those of storage and those of retrieval. In the first kind of error, the information is not stored or is badly stored, and thus lost or forgotten. In the second kind, the information is correctly stored but cannot be retrieved, as the keys to its retrieval have changed or disappeared. It turns out that I have the second kind of error, but the net effect is the same – Albie’s voice is indeed burnt into the gleaming surface of the disc, but I will never hear it, for the keys have been lost.
I slump. I am hesitant to further importune a man, a Constitutional Court judge, who is one of the most eminent figures in the country, and for whom, in the course of the morning, my feeling of affection has been confirmed. But my wife Julia insists, and I call him. As befits an eminent figure, he is gracious and decisive. ‘Can you come back at 2.30?’ he asks. I glance at my watch. It’s just before one. ‘Yes,’ I say. I make phone-calls, drive to Constantia to borrow a tape recorder, dash to a mall for tapes, then drive like Fangio over Constantia Nek, down the Hout Bay valley and around to Clifton, past Oudekraal and Camps Bay. At exactly 2.30 I knock, tape-recorder in hand, my heart beating one-and-a-half time. Having already done the interview, I am aware of a circularity in the relationship: he looked up to my parents as senior comrades. I look up to him for the same reason, but I also stand oddly in loco parentis, so accrete to myself some of the respect due to them. Nevertheless, I am embarrassed. ‘Shit happens,’ I say, shrugging sheepishly. He puts me at ease. Beyond the huge windows, the tide has come in and the waves spout foam over Third Rock in the afternoon sun. I put the tape-recorder on the counter-top, test it (it works), and press ‘record’.