A visit to the accountant. I like my accountant. She's jolly and good and she finds my extraordinary financial incompetence amusing. I've only set eyes on her three times, and that over a period of three years, and she has since moved to a swankier firm, which, judging by the promotional video they play on a loop in the waiting room, exists only to balance the books of the larger companies, or countries about the size of Belgium. I imagine she keeps me on because I make her laugh and remind her of her roots when she used to look after freelance writers. (Do you remember that episode of Black Books in which Bernard tries to get his customers to break his arms so he isn't liable for tax? He's better at his accounts than I am.)
This time the visit is not quite the usual laff-fest. In the past, they went like this. Me: Shall we do my accounts, then? Her: OK, bring them in. Me: Bring in what? Her: Your accounts. You know, your expenses and your income. Me: Can I just give you the password to my online account? Her (eyes widening in horror): That really is NOT a good idea. Me: But I don't LIKE doing my accounts, it's boring and makes me cry. Is wine a legitimate expense? Her: Are you a wine writer? Me: Not as such. And so on, once a year. Eventually I agree to do some kind of bookkeeping, which means I buy a pen and an envelope from Ryman's and put the receipt in my wallet and feel as though I've turned a corner, and then I lose the receipt. A year later I go back to the accountant and we repeat the process.
This time I have been very good. Comparatively. I have kept all my receipts religiously for a three-month period. The A4 notebook I bought from Ryman's - the receipt for which I have since lost - looks very impressive on the outside but on the inside, apart from the three months where I have been boring and grown-up, and where all footling purchases that are related to my work are duly noted, I may as well have drawn a big smiley face with the smile part of it upside down.
I tell my accountant that it's like this every month, just use those three incredibly well-documented months as an average. She tells me it doesn't quite work like that. There are bent accountants and there are honest accountants, and she falls firmly into the latter category. (The best example of one of the former was the one who told a friend of mine to paint over the rear windows of his car so he could call it a van and therefore claim every drop of petrol and all maintenance as legitimate business expenses. It is a dodge I have contemplated more than once.)
So when she emails me to say she has now done what she can, but I had better come in to discuss it, I get a bad feeling, the kind Douglas Adams and John Lloyd in their book The Meaning of Liff called "an Ely": "the first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong."
I sit in the offices of MegaCo accountants and watch the corporate video tell me several times how they managed to keep Poland on an even keel during the fiscal year 2009-2010. Eventually I am called through. My accountant normally wears distractingly low-cut jumpers, but this time she is covered up demurely in black. She tells me that what with me being an incompetent c*** and everything - not that she uses anything like such language, but the import is clear - I now face a tax bill of around this size, and she points to a sum that I could swear is more than News International and Vodafone combined have to shell out a year.
“Is there any way we could get that lower?" I ask. "Well, you could let me know if there are any more expenses you've forgotten about."
I even forget to ask her if wine is a legitimate expense. But I do ask if they will send me to prison. To pay this kind of sum, I reflect, I will need, basically, to win the Booker.
My accountant looks at the sum thoughtfully. "No," she says after a most disconcertingly long pause, "I think we can rule prison out. They only send you to prison if you submit false accounts." But these are false, I want to say, I've left out loads of expenses and yet somehow all my income is in there.
Anyway, in the interests of self-preservation, this column is now doubling as a wine column. I recommend Chalk Spring Vineyards Shiraz, at £5.49 from Majestic (pre-budget price) an amazing bargain, with deep, rich notes of, er, blackcurrant, toffee, cigar boxes, er, oxtail soup, Benylin and monkey spunk, but in a good way, and indeed the only wine I can afford, so I'll be describing it week after week. Using different words, I hope.