I am lying in bed, as is my habit these days, reading a good book and eating a packet of Frazzles (breakfast of champions, and still only 39p), when I feel a tremor in the air. A shudder seems to go through the Hovel, as if some great event has taken place, like the Harrowing of Hell, or the casting of the One Ring into Mount Doom. I put down my Frazzles and tiptoe downstairs to see what has happened.
And there, just below the letter box – in an area that’s normally strewn with cards from minicab firms, leaflets from restaurants that deliver, magazines full of wank for rich people, but which for some reason is now miraculously free of all such litter – lies a single white envelope with my name printed behind the plastic window, and, in handwritten letters small and neat: “Urgent. By hand”.
I know what this is. These days I know pretty much what is going to be in any envelope; I can even make a good guess as to the quality of a novel sent to me for review without opening the jiffy bag. Indeed, it is one of my party tricks. Anyway, this seemingly innocent letter is, I know without opening it, a communication from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, inviting me to get in touch with them, or face the consequences.
I open the envelope, and lo, this is exactly what the letter says. The consequences are almost medieval in their severity. It also gives me a mobile-phone number to ring and the name of the lady (who, unusually for these times, signs herself as a “Miss”) who will, presumably, answer it. I steel my nerves, and ring the number, giving my name. There is a meaningful silence at the other end, into which I say: “Miss ——? You have my full attention.”
HMRC has been trying to get my attention for some time now, and the trickle of envelopes has turned into a flood, reminiscent of that scene in Harry Potter when all those letters from Hogwarts fly into the house of the Dursleys. The problem is that, when it comes to filling in income-tax forms, my nerve fails. No one looks forward to them, but writers hate and fear them more than anyone else, not because they are against the idea of a welfare state subsidised by revenue, but because . . . actually, I’m not sure why. Just take it from me that they do.
However, while almost all of us knuckle under and, at the last possible moment, pull an all-nighter and arrive at HMRC head office with a crumpled, tear-stained but still just about serviceable document on the stroke of the deadline (we can’t afford accountants), I just haven’t for some time now. It’s a simple matter of snowballing terror: you feel terrible not having opened the first envelope, terrified for not opening the second because it will contain a reprimand for not having opened the first, and so on; I have now got the stage where, if I may extend the Tolkien theme from the beginning of this column, I am convinced that if I open the latest HMRC-stamped envelope, a Balrog will jump out.
Well, as it turns out, not only is Miss —— not a Balrog, she even laughs when I say she has my full attention, and I do not think I have heard a more welcome laugh in my life. It indicates the presence of humanity. She suggests she comes round to discuss my affairs. A home visit! It is like an episode of Dr Kildare. She suggests 8am on Monday, which makes me revise my assessment of her humanity, but then she agrees to 10am.
One thing on which my conscience is clear is that I am not hiding anything from the tax people, and even a brief peek around the door of the Hovel will convince even the most sceptical of inspectors that it is only incompetence, deep-seated psychological problems and dimwittery that have prevented me from filling in a tax return, as opposed to dishonesty or greed. After we’ve gone through my income and expenditure, she frowns at her laptop and makes a face that suggests she is wondering how, in the words of a friend of a friend, she is going to be able to pluck feathers from a toad. We eventually agree on a monthly sum that I can at least start with, to show willing.
The interesting thing is that the whole process is liberating: a huge weight off my back. I must say that Miss —— is excellent at her job. She laughs at my jokes, but is no-nonsense when it comes to the numbers and rules bits of it. And when I add, “Do you believe me?” after I say I’m not hiding a stash of gold bullion in my bedroom, she says, “Yes.”