His uncle Tom died after a series of long and painful illnesses, so he went back to the town in which he grew up. It was a big family, but with this death all of his father’s many siblings were now gone. He thought this was a good time to “reconnect,” though if you asked him whether that meant with his family, his past or his life, he couldn’t have told you. He arrived a few days before the funeral, and stayed in the spare room of an old friend; he ended up getting drunk with his cousin Jo, the daughter of the deceased.
Jo had been ostracised by the bulk of the family because she was gay. They never said the word, or explained why; his older relatives just put on a sneer and talked darkly in hushed tones about how they all knew Who she knocks about with and What the likes of they get up to.
It was a Romany family, and Romany custom is to hold your relatives in high esteem; however, having settled amongst the Gadjé, this side of his family seemed to have taken on many of the bigotries that had been used against them by their neighbours—and more besides—and this traditional love of family had, ringed about with so many novel new hatreds, clotted into a kind of treacly, cloying sentimentality about “The good ones”, juxtaposed with a glowering hatred of any who were found wanting, or had stepped outside the very narrow lines of their newfound respectability.
Most of those who dealt in such petty spite were now long dead. He and his cousin sat together in her conservatory, watching her dog gambol about the lawn, snuffling and chasing his tail in the harsh winter light. A few drinks in, she started telling him about how, after her mother—Diaphaney—died, Jo had seen the old woman again, in the bungalow that she grew up in, the very house her father had just died in. Standard stuff: fuelled by booze, driven by grief.
“What I could never understand was, she looked— she looked so happy. Do you understand? Happy. At first I thought ‘Why is Mum so happy, when this terrible thing has happened, and we’ve all been left alone’ but then, then I realised she was happy ’cos she wouldn’t be in pain no more.” She stopped, retrieved a tissue from her sleeve—a habit she shared with his mother—and blew her nose.
“Of course,” she said, “there’s always been something about that house.”
He leaned back in the chair, sipped from his glass.
“You must have felt it too,” she went on. “There’s no way you couldn’t have felt it. When you were little, you used to go there all the time. Remember how you’d come round and read to him? He loved that. But you must’ve felt it, there all the time?”
He often had to humour his relatives when they said stuff like this: this side of his family was given to vague but deeply-held convictions about their capacity for second sight, visions, premonitions, feelings in their water.
Perhaps it was the tone of her voice, but something did make him think about how, visiting his uncle’s bungalow as a child, he sometimes found himself alone in the conservatory, watching the shadow of the gasometer creep up the kitchen wall, enjoying the still of the afternoon, the quiet of it, just the occasional car going past on the suburban side-street; and how, there, alone in the silence, a creeping sadness would worm its way into his bones, one that he couldn’t shake for days afterwards.
He knew—or thought he knew—from spending so long in that house, and from conversations he’d had with mutual relations, that what his cousin had thought was a ghost probably wasn’t a ghost at all. Not really. Not quite.
It was something much, much worse, and in the opinion of most, it all started with a car.
The car was, in most recollections, a Jaguar MK X 4.2, bulging low-slung and sharkish in Oxblood metallic: the colour of dried blood, if a car could bleed. Light entertainment star Nelson Simmons had, so the story went, given the car to Uncle Tom gratis, payment for “services rendered” sometime in the late 1960s, shortly before Simmons’ unfortunate demise.
Ms. Prudence Atchings, demurring as I try to refresh her gimlet, at the wake of my mother, 1992: “Was a fine old car your Uncle Tom had. Grand old motor. Simmons gave it to your Tom, didn’t he? I’m sure that was the same car. Ask your father, he’d know—I couldn’t tell a Beemer from a Bedford, my chavo!”
Mrs Innocence Boswell, sharing a cigarette out of sight of her children, the last time I saw her alive, 1999: “That Nelson? The one Diaphaney used to knock about with? Travelling family, originally—you knew that, though?”
He didn’t like to admit it, but as a child he had been scared of Aunt Diaphaney—Daphne to the Gadjé. Confined to a wheelchair after a stroke in early middle age, one side of her face pulled down in a permanent sneer, her glamorous, old-school film star air—which had inspired envious glances and unkind insinuations from other female members of the family—gone to ash and her skin gone the same colour, dull silvery sheen all over, a grey that clung to and accentuated the new folds and the wrinkles that appeared the day the bolt fell from the sky and struck her brain in two. In this state he’d felt a revulsion for her that he’d never felt before, though whether this was something he picked up off of older relatives or some cruelty he manufactured from his own childhood—some basic lack of empathy, perhaps—he couldn’t have told you. Sympathy and pity, in his upbringing, had been in short supply.
What had happened to Diaphaney—it was muttered by certain elder members of the family—was simply paying back her due. In her youth she’d worked as a hostess and waitress in the private members clubs—Mayfair haunts, Kensington, flashier places out West—frequented by small-time stars of the Swinging Sixties: light entertainment stars with awful wigs enjoying the spotlight four decades before Operation Yew Tree, middling singers, musicians and comedians drafted in from music hall obscurity enjoying a brief period of television celebrity, along with slumming minor aristos and a healthy amount of wideboys, bag-carriers and proper gangsters from the East End.
The last of my parents’ siblings, as I helped her move into an almshouse run by the local authority, Bournemouth, 2014: “Don’t talk to me about that. Don’t go stirring stuff like that up.”
Kipper ties. Bad flares. Worse teeth. Even worse facial hair. Money. Sweat soaking through woollen suits, giving the lashings of cologne a smarting edge. Constant pall of smoke from Park Drive Fives and Marx Bros. cigars; hacking laughter underneath the brassy crescendos of the rhythm section, the occasional squeal—female pleasure or discomfort?—drowned out by the band.
Uncle Tom was one of the hard men who enjoyed life on the periphery of this milieu. Monied entertainers liked to rub shoulders with train robbers, gangland faces and the various nutters, crazies and wideboys who followed in their wake; bloodstains, however, never pair well with Savile Row, so having a trusted few lads around who knew when to step in and “handle” matters was much appreciated.
One of the places that Uncle Tom was required to handle matters was a long-vanished club— El Condor—in the leafy, upscale suburb of Chiswick in West London. A caricature of a vulture wearing a sombrero leered from the billboard outside; it seated fifty for dinner and drinks and was always full. This was despite the fact it charged a week’s wages for silver service and despite the servers of said silver all wearing rather less than dictated in the etiquette manuals, the better for the guests to ogle an eyeful as the girls leaned down—always from the left.
Nelson Simmons was one such patron, an ultimately tragic figure, compère of a Light Entertainment variety show on London weekend television, his obvious syrup perched awry on one side of his head, barking out timeworn vaudevillian catchphrases in the aggressively camp tones of a 1930s antiques dealer, face permanently screwed into a leer: Don’t get many of those to the pound, my dear! as he waggled his eyebrows into the cleavage of some barely-legal victim. All the old ladies in the audience clutched their carpet bags on their laps and howled with laughter.
George “Spider” Geoffries, propping up the bar at the Royal Albert Hall, waiting to see Marco Antonio Barrera annihilate Paul Lloyd for the world super-bantamweight title, 1999: “Your Aunt Diaphaney always got ’em racing. Legs for days, boy. Don’t look like that, she was built like Jane Russell. No wonder that Simmons took a shine to her, before she met your uncle. We all did, I reckon.”
Amongst the tawdry celebrities and the hard men who frequented El Condor were a good number of what might once have been termed sporting coves, those who graced the racetrack, the boxing ring or the pit lane with their presence.
Aunt Diaphaney got a job at El Condor sometime in mid-1964, quickly rising from waitress to “hostess”; the extent of her role’s new duties went unrecorded.
Bartholemeys “Bart” Speedwell—who at eighty still sported the placid demeanour of the true old-school hardman, along with the big solid belly and flat cap—round the back of a lock-up somewhere in South London, 1996: “Nelson Oakley was the boy you’re talking about? Half-Caribbean lad? Lovely left hand—jab and hook. No right cross though. Can’t win fights one-handed, not above a certain level.”
Mr William Lee, at the funeral of my Uncle Charley, 2002: “The way we used to settle things was the best way, my boy: out the back of a vardo, stripped to the waist, until one man gave his best. That’s the way. That’s the way it should be. Don’t hold with going about it any other road.”
My cousin Tommy, holding the pads for me at the old Stokewood Road Athletic Club, the freezing annex on the periphery of a run-down leisure centre where I learned to box, sometime in the late-1990s: “Dad don’t talk about him much. Is Harry Solomons still alive? He’d know. Now, hook off the jab, but bring your hand back quick or one day someone will take your head clean off.”
Harry Solomons—known as the “Meatpacker” for his provision of ambulatory punching bags to pad the records of feted prospects of the promotional cartel that ruled British boxing for four decades from the mid-1950s—in the nursing home in which he died, late 2005: “Terrible business that was. Terrible. They didn’t have to go and do that to the poor boy, did they?”
A tall, fast light-heavy with a classic English stand-up style, Nelson Oakley raced to eighteen wins on the spin before winning the British title over 15 rounds at The Olympia, Kensington, in 1965 (the infamous Rule 24—specifying that boxers fighting for the British title “must have two white parents”—having been rescinded 17 years before). “Brought along” by the aforementioned Mr Solomons, Oakley’s future seemed bright; talk of being snapped up by the cartel, and the future—European, Commonwealth, even world title shots—that awaited.
The last of my parents’ siblings, in conversation outside the George and Devonshire pub, at the after-party for a relative’s Christening, 1998: “Handsome young fella, was Oakley. You could tell he was one for the ladies. He had that easy air about him—no, not like that! Easy to be with. He could make you laugh any time he liked. Women appreciate that. Now, ask me about something else.”
The limited TV footage available bears this out; in the surviving interview the 25 year old comes across—even in the stilted environment of a 1960s TV interview—as quick-witted, sharp and handsome. Anyone could see Oakley was destined for greater things.
Ms. Fiance Loveless, sharing a drink at the Grapes public house while her grandsons enjoyed Appleby Horse Fair, 2011: “Diaphaney was a wild one. You could hear her screaming at Tom from the next trailer over! He’d come home three-parts pissed and she’d threaten to pogger the life out of him. Spitfire she was. But it’s the kosht that pookers the drom, my little chavo. Settle down. Get yourself a nice girl, eh?”
Mr William Lee, between hits of oxygen from the mask keeping him alive, in the hospital room where he died, 2015: “Simmons and that lot took to Oakley, but only so far. Men like that . . . Men like that don’t really care about jockeys or drivers or fighters. They don’t care about young Traveller girls nor poor coloured boys, neither. You was there to make ’em laugh, make ’em feel good, get me? Court jesters, boy. Court jesters. And how you think the king reacts when he finds out his court jester is knobbing his bit on the side?”
Flutter of eyelashes. Splash of liquor in a highball glass. Giddy rush of spotlights, whirl of mirrorballs. A barking laugh; that catchphrase, delivered with the long-practised leer. Wandering hands. Blunt fingers running down silk stockings; idle slap on the arse, the almost absent-minded way you’d smack a horse. Back when showbiz people—people you’d see on the TV—were still allowed to be ugly, when their physical ugliness was still allowed to mirror the ugliness inside.
Harry Solomons, the day he died, breath wheezing and catching in a throat already closing: “Diaphaney knew which side her bread was buttered. But Oakley was a fine-looking lad. She wouldn’t be the first to dip her hand while paying her bills, and won’t be the last neither.”
An arch of an eyebrow. A look that lingered a second too long. Careful with the napkin, careful to keep the lippy on while still drawing attention to your mouth. Head thrown back, sword-swallower’s laugh, reaching out to grab hold of a solid muscled arm as you swayed. Just having fun, of course, and nothing was said. Nothing to her, of course. Or him.
Sampson Fancy, preparing to weld up the rotting floor of a MKII Granada destined for the banger track, 2001: “Car accident, wasn’t it? Fucked his hand. Unlucky, that. Pass us that 19mm socket—no, the deep-impact one.”
Steve “Westy” Westfield, shouting to be heard over the auctioneer at Westbury vehicle salvage auctions, 2003: “That Oakley lad got drunk one night, decided to drive home. Never roll the window down and hang your arm out of it, boy. Roof of a car stays on all on its own. No need to hold on to it. Lose your fuckin’ fingers, doing that.”
Bartholemeys “Bart” Speedwell, watching from the stands at Ringwood Raceway as his son Charlie won the Demolition Derby for The Ant Hill Mob banger team, 2002: “Simmons never would’ve, no. People like that don’t get dirty hands, boy. There’s always some someone willing to go round doin’ their dirty work. Why would they do it themselves, when there’s a load of fuckin’ dinlos ready with the bolt-cutters or the pliers? Use your head, boy.”
A quiet word in Tommy’s ear. The greasy feeling of well-used banknotes. A week before Christmas: a day that never lightened, heavy fog swirling with freezing drizzle, a cold that got in your bones like grief, joints popping like gunshots. Three or four lads he could trust. A shooter, numbers filed off, that would shortly end up in the Thames, sinking like secrets under the black water.
Nelson Oakley laughing under the wail of the band. Another round? Why not. Festive season. Lots to celebrate. Another drink. Another. One more for the road? Nelson mate, you’re getting wobbly. No, don’t wait for a cab—this time of night? In this weather?
Bundled in the back of the Jag. The rich unctuousness of Connolly leather and walnut veneer undercut with sharp male sweat, booze and fags and cologne; pre-dawn London going past outside the windows in a neon blur through the rain and fog. Warm air blasting into the cramped rear seats; swish of fat radials across wet tarmac.
Stirring in the back seat, did he look up, mention that this wasn’t the way home? Did he even notice before they pulled over in that dim underpass? Maybe they had to help him out the back, hold him up:
That’s the way Nels, you’ll be okay, soon get you home and safe . . .
Did he struggle? Did they have to hold him? Was there a beating before they did it? I like to think he’d have known them well enough—known what men like these were capable of—that when they showed him the shooter, he meekly went along with it. A rag stuffed in his mouth to stop him crying out, rough hands on his sleeve, glint of stolen light on the barrel. The cold oily hardness of the gun against his head, the noise as they cocked it felt rather than heard through the bones of the zygomatic arch; smell of cordite and high-grade mineral oil thick in his nostrils. Stinging wind rushing cold along that underpass, then the thick sudden slam of the door as it turned the delicate, complicated bones of his right hand to gravel: repeated once, twice, three times. Biting down on that rag. Trying not to faint.
A pat on the cheek. Ten bob for cab fare home.
Maybe you’ll know now not to go knockin’ about with another mush’s mollisher, my boy? Maybe this’ll learn you.
Harry Solomons, weeping in his room in the care home, 2005: “Nine months before he could put a pair of Lonsdales on again. The British Boxing Board stripped the poor bastard for inactivity, so we didn’t even have the title. Six operations we paid for, but the poor cunt couldn’t barely make a fist.”
Nelson Oakley’s comeback was an inauspicious affair, an eight round draw with one Dickie Evans, a journeyman he’d comfortably outscored two years earlier. Three more desultory wins over nobody much at all saw him fight squat Scouse hardman Harry Mullers for his old British title at the Anglo-American Sporting Club in Mayfair: Black Tie and polite applause over the sound of punches given and exchanged. Fifteen rounds later, one eye swollen shut, the referee raised his opponent’s hand. It would be the last time he contested a title, though he fought on until 1969, losing as many as he won: as it was noted in the sporting publications of the day, he rarely employed his right hand with any force, and sufficiently determined foes were hard to keep at bay with just the jab and hook.
Boxing Day, 1970: Nelson Oakley’s body was discovered in the cold damp of his bedsit flat, swaying gently from a rope wound round the pulleys of the ceiling creel. There was no note. By then he was mostly forgotten, a washed-up ex-pro scraping a living as a dustman.
This, of course, is where the true story began.
George “Spider” Geoffries, smoking in the public bar of a run-down boozer on the Old Kent Road, at the wake of my Uncle Sampson, 2006: “Funny business, the way that old Simmons went. Few people wondered why he never turned up to Oakley’s funeral, like. Next thing you know, the old boy’s dead hisself. Never know the hand you been dealt, my lad, you never know.”
While Nelson Oakley’s body lay in state in the front parlour of his mother’s semi-detached in Wandsworth, surrounded by a gaggle of crying cousins, various aunts bustling in and out with trays of food, Nelson Simmons was dying across the city in his Mayfair flat.
My cousin’s cousin Billy Smith, spitting on the ground and stamping out the cold at the Figure-of-Eight Banger World Championships, the last year it was held at the grim old greyhound track at the now-vanished Wimbledon Stadium, 2003: “I tell you this for fuck-all: I seen a lot of things, boy. A lot of things. I saw a man blinded, once, watched as they got the propane cutting torch out and heated the cross-cut chisel they was gonna do it with in front of his face. But I ain’t never seen no-one’s face look like old Simmons’s when they found him. Bad business.”
Sprawled naked on his kurk wool Persian rug but for a silk shortie dressing gown and the contents of a pitcher of exceptionally dry Martinis, Simmons’ housekeeper found his corpse in a congealed pool of liquid shit the day before New Year’s Eve. The window to the secluded little courtyard below was wide-open, damask fluttering in a knife-edge breeze.
My mother, the year before she died, half out of her head from morphine as the cancer ate away her bowels and turned her bones to molten lead, 1992: “Ain’t like a ghost. More like . . . something that can wear the dead, boy. Wears ’em like a suit of clothes.”
The last of my parents’ siblings, a festive visit in the damp dead dog-end time between Christmas and New Year, 2011: “Diaphaney was broken by Nelson’s death. Broken clean in half. And let me tell you this: if she’d not been hitting the bottle so hard, maybe she wouldn’t have fallen into Tom’s waiting arms. But the less said about that the better, eh?”
Simmons’ funeral was a huge affair, with the great and the good hob-knobbing with the cream of London’s underworld. Not just showbiz types (and, allegedly, a government minister incognito) stamping out the cold in camel hair coats over their black suits, the women in too much fur and black veils: fighting men besides, Travelling men, sporting men—fighting cocks strutting as they puffed out their chests and showed off their spurs, cheeks gone the colour of a coxcomb from too many pints and pies, buttons straining on their three-pieces; a cortège pulled by half-a-dozen black horses clattering down the Tottenham Court Road, the onlookers silent as they lined the streets.
My cousin’s husband, Edward “Teddy” Smith, lighting me my first-ever cigarette at the graveside of my mother, 1993: “Yes, of course I’ve heard tell of ’em. My father saw one while he was out tottin’ with me grandfather. Dadus fell behind, ’cos of his, y’know, his terrible thirst, and the fucking thing climbed in the window of the pub after him. Chased him all the way home, didn’t it!”
Aunt Charity, at the fortieth birthday celebrations of Cousin Tommy, October 2010: “No, not like that. Not literally. Don’t talk dinlo. S’more of a . . . It looks like ’em, see? It looks like that, like someone you loved, so’s when it comes for you and climbs up on your chest, and you wake up with sweat freezing down your ribs and your chad flappin’ open, the last thing you see is the face of someone you loved. Or someone you hurt, which is oftentimes the same thing.”
What could it do to you, this thing that was not a thing, this ghost that was not a ghost, this thing that wore the likeness of the dead—that might burn with the rage or pain or lust the person might’ve burnt with—but wasn’t, in some important way, them at all?
While Nelson Simmons was at the undertaker’s, having the terrible rictus he died with wiped from his face, the hard men who’d been with Uncle Tom and Nelson Oakley in that cold underpass began to die. One by one they fell—on the way back from the races, wandering back pissed from lock-ins, alone in their underpants in freezing rented rooms—like dominoes, spaced out by the funerals of their fellows. Each one of them crying as it came on them, pissing themselves as it clawed its way up their faces and slid up the nose and in through the eyes with its hideous spindly fingers, fingers like sharpened bits of wood. Each one’s face more twisted with fear and pain than the last; left cold and unmoving, cold forever and alone.
Diaphaney and Uncle Tom were married in May 1971.
The last of my parents’ siblings, at the funeral of my Uncle Jack, 2004: “Shame about poor Diaphaney? No my chavo, shame on those who willed her ill. She’d not done anything to deserve it.”
Ms. Prudence Atchings, at the funeral of my Aunt Phoebe, 1999: “Diaphaney was never better than she should’ve been. But your Tom was a saint, a saint I tells you—stood by her side all that time, when many a man would’ve been off down the road. When you grow up, make sure you grow into a man like him, eh?”
Diaphaney’s first stroke took her legs in 1984, two months after she gave birth to Jo. In early 1991 another twisted her face into the unrecognisable parody I feared as a child. Another one finished her off in ’96. Uncle Tom chugged along, though by then diabetes had taken his sight and would soon start to trim his fingers and toes, the unending string of secondary infections lending him a smell that came to permeate his entire house: alternately sickly-sweet and putrid, all underneath the ammonia reek that thickened the air as he lost control of his bladder.
Steve “Westy” Westfield, at the funeral of my Uncle Bill, 2014: “Fucking dominoes, mush. Fucking dominoes. That’s the problem with these big families: once one poor old bastard goes, the rest follow ’em on down.”
The last of my parents’ siblings, at Tom’s funeral, early 2020: “What you asking about that for again? Ain’t you tired of talking about the dead, boy?”
Uncle Durri. Aunt Clementia. Aunt Kezia. My mother. Uncle Samson. Aunt Alice. Aunt Charity. Uncle Jack. Uncle Charley. Aunt Fiance. Aunt Diaphaney. Uncle Tom. Nelson Simmons. Nelson Oakley. All gone.
I looked at my cousin’s face, collapsed from weeping, contorted with grief. I put my hand on hers. The next day, at the funeral, I noted with some surprise that the family had, from somewhere, procured a beautiful old Mk. X Jag: sunlight glinted back from the chrome and the whitewalls looked like they’d been painted on with Tippex that morning. My cousins rode in at the front of the procession, and those who didn’t know better murmured at this disrespect—what with it being a deep rich red colour and not black—and those who knew better nodded approvingly; and I, I suppressed a shudder that started where my spine met my pelvis and went right up through my guts like a stab wound.
I have never seen a ghost. But in that bungalow where my Uncle Tom and Aunt Diaphaney settled, when I was alone, helping to pack up first her old clothes and then—decades later—his . . . I couldn’t swear to it but sometimes it was as though I felt— a presence? Certainly. A sound, maybe.
Something that . . . Something that remembered, definitely. Something that hated, without a shadow of a doubt.