Jeremy Clarke

Called to account

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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The tax man, a Mr Matthews in my case, rang the other day. He said, 'Why haven't you answered our letters for the last four years, Mr Clarke?' I'd been dreading this phone call for so long that it was almost a relief. I wasn't much of a letter writer, I told him, which is the truth. Well, things have got to the stage now, said Mr Matthews, where bailiffs could seize my assets. Did I have any seizable assets? Only my laptop, I said. And a monitor. But if they seized those, I said, it would be a bit of an own goal as I wouldn't be able to earn the money to pay back what I owed. 'What about your car?' he suggested. 'What's that worth?' 'Less than the monitor probably,' I said.

To avert the bailiff situation, I agreed to bring all my receipts, invoices and bank statements to the tax office the following day. We'll have a look at them, said Mr Matthews, and maybe fill out some returns. I had kept all my statements and invoices, hadn't I? I had, I said.

Well, I thought I had. But when it came to actually laying my hands on them, I couldn't find them. That's the trouble with living here, there and everywhere, you can never find anything. So when I was ushered into the large bare room and sat down facing Mr Matthews across the large bare desk, all I had with me was a book called Hot Sex: How To Do It (pocket edition) and a letter addressed to Her Majesty the Queen. I'd bought the book along in case I was kept waiting, and the letter in case there was a post-box between the carpark and the tax office, which there wasn't.

I laid the book and the letter on the table. Mr Matthews looked optimistically from the one to the other. In case he thought the letter to Her Majesty was an attempt, regarding my unpaid tax, to go above his head by appealing to a higher authority, I hastened to reassure him. The letter, I said, contained my humble protest against the imminent war with Iraq. I had protested in my capacity as subject, I added, rather than as a tax-payer. I should have written to the Prime Minister, but he's mad. 'So where,' asked Mr Matthews, still clinging to vestiges of his optimism, 'are your bank statements and receipts?' 'I couldn't find them,' I said. 'You couldn't find them,' said Mr Matthews.

After that, I thought Mr Matthews would stand up, lean out of the window and let off a starting pistol, inaugurating a race between a team of bailiffs and myself, for home and my laptop computer. But he was patient. He would give me another week to get my stuff together. I couldn't come the following week, I said, because I was going on a Buddhist retreat. His patience, not itself without a certain Zen-like quality, held. 'The week after that, then,' he said. 'Which day would you like?'

Next door but three to the tax office is a tiny second-hand bookshop called Duncan's Books. Duncan is a saintly evangelical Christian Yorkshire man; his bookshop a kind of evangelical outreach. To give Duncan his due, though, he only talks about Jesus if He comes up naturally in conversation. He doesn't force it on anyone. Normally he just sits there reading. But get him on the subject and it's hard to get him off it again. He paces up and down his shop with love for Jesus shining out of his eyes and heart so full of love and pity you think it might burst.

I'd prayed to God about bailiffs before going into the tax office. And as Mr Matthews hadn't been vindictive (his tie even had multi-coloured balloons on it), and there was no further talk about bailiffs, I felt I'd had a result. So I was feeling a bit religious and loved-up when I came out of the tax office. While I was in the area, I thought I'd pop into Duncan's bookshop, get him on the subject of Jesus, and warm my hands by the flame awhile.

His shop was empty as usual. Duncan was at his desk, reading. It's been a long time, years, since I was last in his shop. He didn't remember my name, but he remembered I was that back-slid Christian that came in to see him now and again. Duncan's heart is simply blazing with love for back-slid Christians. I knelt on the floor to look at the bottom shelf of the fiction section and we talked about income tax for a while. Then I said, 'Duncan, I had a prayer answered this morning.' My God, his hands went up towards heaven and he was on his feet dancing a little jig; dancing for joy, like David, before the Lord. And then he said, 'Always remember, God looves yer. He really looves yer with all of His 'eart.' And he went on like this for quite a while, and I was so moved by his simple enthusiasm I left my sex manual and my letter to the Queen in his shop.