A nasty letter from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. By "nasty", I mean pant-shittingly terrifying: a £20-per-day fine until I sort myself out. (I am hazy on the details of what "sort myself out" might entail; I have to get Razors to open their buff envelopes and give me the gist of the contents while I curl up behind the sofa in the foetal position, making faint mewing noises.) How they can draw extra water from a well that is already dry seems to have become, all of a sudden, my problem rather than theirs. My policy had always been that if I didn't bother them, they wouldn't bother me, but this seems to have backfired.
There was an advertising campaign they ran to try to encourage the self-employed to fill in their tax returns. I vaguely recall an avuncular City gent reminiscent of the Evening Standard's Bristow, who was meant to inject a little friendliness into the business but didn't fool anyone, and he wouldn't be impressed or amused by the two or three plastic bags full of receipts that are the only fragments I seem to have shored against my ruins.
The snag is that I really have a big problem filling in my own tax returns, or even adding up my income and my expenses and sending them off to an accountant. For a few years, I thrashed around every few months with a shoebox of receipts and a medium-sized hardback book from Ryman's, but eventually even this got too much for me and I rather pathetically got my wife to do it for me. If, at any point, I have been harsh about this woman in this column, let the record state that she knuckled under with this irksome task for years without exacting anything unreasonable in return, and I will be forever grateful for this period of respite. But it goes without saying that this service has stopped for good. I know a woman who would sew on her husband's trouserbuttons even after he'd kicked her out, but doing the estranged spouse's tax returns is a step too far.
This is the nub, then: I am really bad at this kind of thing. In so many other areas, I am more than competent. I can cook, speak a few European languages with varying degrees of fluency and fix a broken-down car or motorbike far more often than you might imagine. In fact, I am generally a good person to have around in a crisis (although I have had an unfair amount of experience of crises, having been implicated at the root of so many)My children still love me, I can tune a violin, a ukulele and a guitar, and I have the grudging respect of some of my peers. But when it comes to organising, in even the most rudimentary way, my finances, I am what my father would call an Absolute Shower.
I have asked around among my friends - few of whom, as you might expect, are likely to win the Tax Form Filler-In of the Year Award - and I have found only one who is more incompetent than me; and she already pays most of her tax via PAYE, so I'm not sure that really counts. (And do people still say PAYE? Is that not a reference that dates me as much as the Home Service, Top of the Pops or democratic socialism?)
The only explanation I can think of is that, at some point around 1992, I had a stroke that left me with all my faculties intact, save the ability to do my books. Can I claim some kind of medical exemption?
This has been the low, rumbling thunder in the background that has provided the chief darkness to my adult life - but as Shakespeare puts it, so foul a sky clears not without a storm, and here it comes. Should I declare the truckle of cheese and the £20 note mailed to the Duke by my most loyal fan, or the red shirt sent to me by a reader from France? "A red shirt does something for a man," she writes in her accompanying letter. "I'm not sure what, though." It seems to have brought me luck, both good and bad, very quickly, and she says she spent only €1 on it - but am I going to have to tear it in two and send one half to the taxman? Or do they want the whole shirt off my back? It really is all I have to offer.