Missing Trader

Bureaucracy: a system of administration … designed to dispose of a large body of work in a routine manner (Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers)

This story is set in a Value Added Tax office of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise during the earliest years of the twenty-first century. It is an era of new technology and target-driven work practices but perhaps the Department’s management mindset is still stuck in the 1970s when the tax was introduced.

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Dick approached my desk a little tentatively, blinking behind his glasses when I looked up at him.

“I need a report from you” he said.

“I’m here to help” I replied. “What are you after?”

“It’s time my team took a serious look at our pubs” Dick said. “We’ve got quite a lot in our area and their tax performance is surprisingly variable. I think we should start with those that have extended their floor space recently and become more like licensed restaurants; can you provide me a list?”

“Not really, not as such, but it’s likely we would have picked them up already, from their costs; you know, building works, kitchen equipment, that sort of thing.”

Dick frowned and hesitated for a moment. “Turnover then” he suggested. 

I could see that he was struggling to come up with criteria I could use; like most of our management staff he had not yet adapted to the age of the computer and he did not understand the selection process I could use to assist him.

“Suppose I go for a minimum turnover of, say, a hundred thousand pounds and pick out those that haven’t been visited for at least three years. If I list them in reverse order of tax performance you could take them from the top and decide how many you want your team to visit. You’ve got the postcodes in the north and east of the county haven’t you?”

“Yes” said Dick. “That might work. We’ve got a lot of those old coaching inns and village pubs that need to catch the tourists and travelling salesmen these days to survive. How many do you think we’ve got?”

“Only one way to find out” I said. “Let me run the report for you. When do you want it?”

“Oh” said Dick, “there’s no rush; by the end of next week, I should think.”

“Fine” I concluded, “I’ll have it ready for you.”

I could have run the report, sorted the results and printed off a neatly formatted final version in little more than five minutes if asked to do so, but Dick would not have realised that. Dick, like all of his management colleagues still lived in a world where any attempt to compile such a report manually, by trawling through individual sets of traders’ records, would have taken weeks, or months to complete. New procedures, based on improved technology, meant that local offices could now do their own visit selection, instead of having their work priorities set by a single, centralised computer facility; however, our managers mostly lacked the computer skills, statistical understanding and even the visiting work experience that was needed to take advantage of the opportunities provided by a changing world.

Almost all of my colleagues saw our visiting work as the real purpose of their employment and strenuously avoided ‘indoor’ posts that would keep them tied to an office desk; they also regarded the car expenses and subsistence they could claim for travelling around our area as an essential part of their regular income. Personally, I found life as a visiting officer continually stressful, and I had long since realised that using my own cars for work merely caused them to wear out more quickly, while the related expenses only created an illusion of greater opulence. An additional disincentive was that the government no longer increased our mileage payments in line with the costs estimated by motoring organisations (although, of course, the same discourtesy was not extended to Members of Parliament). When a ‘Sift Team’ was set up, to identify and monitor suitable cases for the visiting staff, I had been happy to volunteer for a job that many people saw as an irrelevance, and I settled into a regular office routine.

Dick returned to his lonely office in the management corridor and I returned to the pile of papers in my in-tray. Among the routine memos, computer print-outs and departmental circulars I noticed the distinctive pink colour of an Urgent Reference. With a proper sense of my priorities I pulled the sheet out of the tray and laid it on the desk in front of me. The pink form was used to report a sale or purchase noted by a visiting officer and which they thought should be checked in the records of the other party to the transaction without delay. In this case Kevin, an experienced and conscientious officer, was giving details of the cost of a new factory unit purchased by a company that he had visited. The supplier had charged £1million plus £125,000 VAT. Kevin had not offered any particular reason for wanting this transaction checked; perhaps it was just the value of the supply that had caught his attention.

The supplier was called Alantom Builders. I entered their VAT registration number on my desktop computer terminal to look at our record of their tax returns. In spite of many years’ acquaintance with all kinds of VAT accounting problems, on this occasion I was quite taken by surprise. It was almost three years since the business had last submitted a VAT return and before that it had been regularly reclaiming tax from us, not paying it in. I looked again at Kevin’s reference; the invoice he had seen was dated more than two years ago. Alarm bells began to ring in my mind; it was clear that Kevin had been right to request urgent attention to the case. I jotted the relevant VAT number down on a folder request form which I was going to toss into my out tray but, after a moment of hesitation, I decided to walk down the corridor to the filing room and collect the trader’s folder myself so that I could examine it without delay.

The Department’s progress from paper filing to computer based records was still at an early stage and the familiar green folders that had been used to hold the details of each VAT-registered business ever since the tax was introduced were still a necessary part of the system. Back at my desk, I made a quick search of the Alantom Builders’ folder to see what basic information we held about them. The firm was a partnership that had been set up by a pair of builders to carry out new construction work, operating from an address in a small industrial estate. The address was only a few miles from our own office, in one of our larger local towns. Because for some years all new construction work had been zero-rated and the business had made only modest and plausible repayment claims, it seemed that the partnership had not attracted any attention from the Department and had not received even one visit from us to confirm that the records were in order. When the rules changed and the construction of new commercial buildings became a standard rate supply, the ‘repayment trader’ indicator in Alantom’s computer data should probably have been deleted but this had not happened; consequently when the partners stopped sending in their quarterly returns no automatic enquiries had been triggered. As far as we were concerned, Alantom Builders were very unlikely to owe us any money and there was therefore no compelling reason to chase them for their missing tax returns.  

It was obvious that we needed to make some enquiries now and it was my responsibility to initiate an appropriate course of action. Normally I would have passed the folder on to our visit bookers, with the pink Urgent Reference clipped conspicuously on the front and with a feedback form to ensure that the papers would be returned to me after completion. However, it occurred to me that if our visiting staff were heavily committed or the business had moved and could not be quickly found, any delay would leave us dangerously close to the three year time limit that imposed legal restrictions on our ability to take any necessary corrective action. It seemed to me that it would be more sensible to have an officer call at the premises unannounced to discover why returns were not being submitted; a formal visit could then be carried out later if, as seemed likely, there was a problem that required investigation. 

We had an office ‘Enforcement Team’ who spent their time knocking on doors and extracting tax debts from reluctant payers; their way of working fitted my proposed course of action so I took the Alantom Builders folder to Charles, the team manager, hoping that he would agree to help. Charles was a likeable fellow but he had become more than a little cynical and he was something of a stickler for doing things ‘by the book’. 

“Look,” I said “all I need is for someone to knock on the door and find out what is going on. One of your officers could do it on their way back to the office when they’ve been working in the town. There could be quite a lot of revenue at stake and it’s not impossible that the trader might produce the missing returns, and a cheque, on the spot,”

Charles grunted and shifted in his chair a little. “Well, all right,” he said, with obvious reluctance, “leave it with me.”

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It must have been at least two weeks later that I realised I had not received the feedback sheet for Alantom Builders, so I phoned the filing room to ask who was holding the folder. It turned out that the folder had found its way back into filing without the feedback sheet returning to me (as it should have done); I decided to retrieve it and find out what was going on. The folder contents proved to be exactly as when I had last seen them, except that a memo I had attached for Charles’ benefit had disappeared. There was no visit report or even a rough note to indicate what action the Enforcement Team might have taken in response to my request. I booked the folder out to myself and found a moment to take it with me to see Charles and ask what had happened.

“Oh, that” Charles said. “Lindy dropped by about a week ago. She said there was nothing there; it looked as though the place had been empty for weeks.”

“Any chance of a forwarding address?” I enquired.

“Nobody to ask” Charles replied. “Nothing more we can do. It’s a missing trader.”

I suppressed my annoyance that nothing had been reported back to me and returned to my own desk. Strictly speaking Charles was absolutely correct. There was no debt on file for Alantom Builders so there was no procedure for his Enforcement Team to follow and, as the business had vacated its last known address without notifying us, the case did fall to be reported to the ‘Missing Traders’ seat at our regional headquarters. 

I was reluctant to leave matters as they stood. The ‘Missing Traders’ category was something of a black hole: I had a suspicion that it was probably monitored by a single, unambitious officer who would necessarily be following a simple and rigid set of instructions. It was certain that any missing traders’ debts were routinely written off and in the case of Alantom Builders we didn’t even know what those debts might be. I decided that I would make a few more enquiries of my own before abandoning the case as a lost cause.

For a start, I had a proper look through the contents of the green folder. Unfortunately the partners had only given their business address and not their private addresses but it crossed my mind that work relationships in the building trades can be quite fluid and that it might be worth checking whether either of them had a separate, personal VAT registration. This thought led to a small breakthrough: it seemed that Tom Burge had indeed taken out a VAT registration of his own, dating from about the time that the partnership had stopped sending in its tax returns. It was easy to discover from our computer that Tom had an impeccable record of returns and payments right up to date, even though, like the partnership, he had never been visited.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “Tom’s one of the good guys. Perhaps when Tom branched out on his own Alan began to fall short on the bookkeeping front.” 

Tom’s registered address was in a residential street but the computer showed that his latest return had been a final return as he was being deregistered; a letter in his green folder, date stamped in the previous month, indicated that he had retired and was about to leave the area. It looked as if, even if we managed to contact Tom, we would still need to find out what Alan was doing; presumably he had kept the original business going himself even though the partnership had apparently split up.

I returned to the partnership folder. I had noticed that when Alantom Builders registered for VAT they had been assisted by a professional accountant. Perhaps he had just helped them to fill in the forms and had never heard from them again; there was nothing in the folder to show that he had had any further involvement with the partnership. On the other hand, perhaps he could at least supply a possible address for Alan: it had to be worth a try. I didn’t recognise the accountant’s name so I prepared mentally for a fairly formal conversation before calling him on the telephone.

“Sorry to trouble you” I explained, after the introductions and having said that I was phoning about Alan Carter, “but we seem to have lost contact with him and the only address we have is an empty set of business premises. Do you happen to know where we can get in touch with him now?”  

I expected the accountant to either say: “Yes, no problem, let me just get out the file” or: “Haven’t seen him for years, I don’t think I can help you.” It was rather a surprise when he replied in a somewhat nervous voice: “I think it would be best if you met with him here. Can you come to my office?”

“Well,” I said “I don’t do the visiting myself these days. I can arrange for a colleague to make an appointment. but we wouldn’t normally want to come to your…” 

“It would be best if I’m present when you see him” the accountant interrupted. His tone was confidential rather than demanding and, as I was grateful for any positive response at this point, I decided to accept his implied offer of assistance.

“Very well,” I said “I’ll pass the case on to one of our visiting teams and ask them to give you a call. Thanks for your help.”

The Enforcement Team still seemed to me to be the best option for ensuring prompt action, but first I went through the folder contents again to make sure there was nothing that Charles could pick on as a reason for refusing to help. As it happened, this last minute check did reveal a complication that I had overlooked previously. Among the oldest papers in the folder I spotted not one but two of the simple worksheets that were used to check the progress of new applications through the registration process. Once a registration had been completed, the worksheet really had no further significance and, even though I was being thorough, it was only the slight oddness of seeing two worksheets together in the same folder that caused me to bother looking at them. 

Only one of the worksheets belonged in the Alantom Builders folder. The other had not been fully completed; it had somehow got separated from an application for registration sent in by a Mister Alan Carter… 

Suddenly I realised why we had not received any returns from Alantom Builders for nearly three years. The partnership had been dissolved and both partners had applied to be registered individually. Tom’s application had been processed correctly but Alan’s had become separated from its worksheet, the worksheet had been misfiled and without a worksheet the Registration staff had failed to realise that they had an unprocessed application. Alan Carter’s registration forms were probably still lying unattended and forgotten at the bottom of a cupboard, lost in the backlog of registration work.

Alan must have been puzzled by the absence of contact from the VAT Office. Eventually he may have decided to take advantage of the situation. It was possible that he had spent the tax charged to his clients as if it were his own income but it was more likely that he was holding it in a deposit account and enjoying the benefit of a modest but welcome flow of interest from his investment. I could imagine him saying to himself: “Don’t they want it? They’ve only got to ask…”

Later that day, choosing what I hoped would be an opportune moment, I took the Alantom Builders green folder back to Charles, with the pink urgent reference form and a new feedback sheet attached on the front. 

“Not that again!” he said. Patiently I described the progress I had made since he had last seen the folder, and explained that we now had a convenient opportunity to meet Alan with his accountant, collect the missing returns and receive any tax payment due. I emphasised that we knew the business owed us at least £125000 in output tax as I hoped this would give Charles a good reason to act on my unorthodox approach: accepting a payment of that size could give a worthwhile boost to the Enforcement Team’s monthly statistics.

“Oh, all right,” Charles said eventually. He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of his in-tray. “Leave it there. I’ll look into it later.” He didn’t sound very enthusiastic but I had learned not to associate Charles with enthusiasm. “I suppose I could do it myself,” he added a little more positively, “it would be an excuse for me to get out of the office for a change.”

“Thanks” I responded, hopeful that I had finally completed my part in the progress of the case.  

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A month or more passed by without my feedback sheet being returned. I couldn’t help wondering what had happened, so during a spare moment I phoned the filing room and asked them to check the current location of the Alantom Builders folder; apparently it had been sent to the Deregistration seat. This at least suggested that some definite action had been taken to finalise the case but, if so, the feedback sheet should have found its way back to me for my own records. Once again I made my way to Charles’ desk, curiosity narrowly winning over irritation in setting my mood.

“It wasn’t really one for us,” said Charles, rather testily. “If Registration had handled it correctly, he could have kept the same number when the partnership broke up, but because of the delay they’ve had to cancel it and set up a new back-dated registration. I think his first return won’t be due until next month. Right now he doesn’t owe us anything, so it isn’t a job for Enforcement.”

“Any idea how much he’ll have to pay us on that return?” I asked.

Charles muttered his reply through gritted teeth: “About £250000” he said.

After a moment of silence I nodded an acknowledgement and turned to go. I could empathise with Charles’ annoyance. We were working in an era of management targets and objectives, and he had helped the Department to secure an undeclared quarter of a million pounds that, because technically it was not yet owed, he would not be able to include in the Enforcement Team statistics. 

“Never mind,” I thought to myself, “it’s eligible for my own statistical return and being able to tell a story about how I pursued the case through to the end may stand me in good stead one day, if I ever get a chance to apply for a job somewhere else…”      

Dubious Accounts

As it happened, I was the first VAT officer to come across Vincent Riley. I had made an appointment to carry out an inspection at a terraced house in a congested corner of the town; I can’t remember now whose business was the subject of my visit, but I know that I was expecting to meet a self-employed building tradesman of some kind, a plasterer perhaps or a bricklayer. When I knocked on the door it was opened by a rather scrawny man in his shirtsleeves and with a day or two of stubble on his chin. When I introduced myself he didn’t say anything or proffer a hand to be shaken, he just nodded slightly and ushered me through a narrow hallway into a cramped sitting room where a younger man was stood by the fireplace, looking slightly nervous.

“This is my accountant, Mister…”

“Riley” said the younger man, extending his right hand towards me, “Vincent Riley.” He spoke clearly, but in a soft, unobtrusive voice.

“Oh” I said, “I don’t think we’ve met before.”

Riley was about the same height as me. He had slightly curly black hair which was cut relatively short when compared with the fashion of those times, and he was wearing a well-worn tweed jacket over a V-neck pullover and a tie. He also wore a pair of glasses with thick, black rims. Over all, he looked rather like a recent school leaver struggling to conform to the expectations of the adult world but I think he must have been rather older than his appearance suggested; perhaps he was in his middle or late twenties. I would conclude later that seeming to be a little immature but earnest was an essential part of his technique for obtaining clients.

“Mister Riley does all my book work” said the workman, “I’m no good at that sort of thing.” He shuffled his feet and looked uncomfortable. “You need to talk to him, not me, and I’ve got a job to go to, if you don’t mind.”

“Well” I began “I should really…” I could not see any sign of account books or other papers in the room and there was no table to work on. We were stood rather awkwardly in a group surrounded by an assortment of comfortable but impractical armchairs.

“I keep all the books at my house” said Riley. “You can see them there; it’s not very convenient here.”

“Well…” I began again.

“I’m not far away,” Riley continued “and I can answer all your questions” he added, implying that his client could be allowed to go to his work without causing us any difficulty.

The visit was definitely not proceeding in accordance with the Department’s official instructions, but I seemed to be faced with a fait accompli and as my main purpose was to check the trader’s books I decided that I would have to go along with Riley’s suggestion. I asked a few very basic questions of his client before we left, and then followed Riley’s directions to his own house which was about a five minutes drive in my car.

Riley’s house turned out to be one of those post-war council houses that, in those days, were occupied by tenants who paid a modest rent to the local authority. Riley was letting himself in through the front door when I arrived; I followed him inside and he directed me into the front room where there was a dining table and chairs, all looking old enough to be second-hand, and no other furniture except for a grubby mirror above the fireplace.

“Would you like a coffee?” he enquired.

“Yes, please” I replied; it was an automatic reflex.

While Riley was out of the room I selected one of the chairs, sat down, pulled the case file out of my briefcase and placed it on the table in front of me. I could hear indistinct voices from elsewhere in the house and I realised that Riley was in conversation with a woman, probably in the kitchen. A small boy suddenly appeared beside me; he must have come into the room very quietly. He was wearing only an unwashed t-shirt and he stood staring up at me silently, a thumb in his mouth.

 “Hello!” I said. He continued to look at me for a few moments and then turned and scuttled out of the room without attempting to reply.

Riley returned soon after that, bringing me a cup of the roughest coffee I had ever experienced. I was grateful that he was out of the room again while I recovered from the first mouthful. He reappeared with a small, battered suitcase which he laid on the table and opened to reveal a commercial accounts book and some loose-leaf papers which were apparently his client’s business records.

“There’s not much for you to see” he said. “He hadn’t set anything up when I took him on, so I’ve started a cash book for him. I’ll be seeing him every week or two to bring it up to date.”

He was right; as the client worked as a sub-contractor on new houses his services were zero-rated, and there wasn’t a lot of tax at stake on his expenses either so there wasn’t much detail to look through and I don’t recall spotting any obvious errors. I decided that I should find out a little more about Riley himself.

“Have you been here long?” I asked, “I thought I knew all the accountants in town.”

He seemed to hesitate slightly before answering, or it might just have been his natural manner. “I’ve started on my own recently” he said, and he paused again before adding “I’m not qualified to audit company accounts, but there’s plenty of work I can do for smaller businesses.”

“Like this chap?”

“Yes; he wouldn’t do any bookkeeping at all without my help”. He paused again before saying “He’s given me his cheque book too, otherwise none of his bills would ever get paid.”

I was surprised at the extent of the service Riley seemed to be offering his client, but I had come across more than one or two other equally unsophisticated tradesmen who might have benefited from a similar arrangement. After declining the offer of a second cup of coffee, I drew matters to a close and went on my way.

* * *

It was two or three months later when by chance I bumped into John, an occasional acquaintance of mine, at some kind of minor social event. I didn’t know John well, but I did know that he was working as an articled clerk at Ashgrove & Partners, a stuffy but respectable accountancy firm that had been serving the town’s business community for the past hundred years or so. On the rare occasions when we met we usually exchanged a little banter about accountancy or accountants as we weren’t sure what other interests we might have in common.

Rather unthinkingly, I opened the conversation with a blunt question: “Do you happen to know someone called Vincent Riley?”

John was visibly startled and came close to dropping the cup and saucer he was holding in one hand. “That name’s bad news” he said when he had recovered his composure. “Where have you heard it?”

“I met him a while ago” I replied, “doing the books for someone I had to visit.”

“He worked for us for a time” said John “and the partners are very embarrassed about it. We’re careful not to talk about him in the office.”

It was my turn to be surprised. “I don’t think he’s qualified” I said.

“Indeed, no!” John responded sharply.

We were both treading perilously close to unacceptable breaches of confidentiality and I had no compelling reason to probe any further. It would have been interesting to find out exactly how Riley had offended against the professional standards of Ashgrove & Partners, but it would have been at least tactless to enquire, so at this point I changed the subject.

Several more weeks passed by. I was sat at my office desk one day when the phone rang. It was an internal call from Doug, my Surveyor (I guess we would say ‘team leader’ today).

“Can you come to my office for a few minutes?” he asked.                                         I walked the short distance to Doug’s office and found that Reggie, our fraud investigation specialist was also waiting for me there.

“Close the door” said Doug, so I did that before taking the remaining spare seat which was more or less facing Doug across his desk. Reggie was slouched in a more comfortable, cushioned chair at the side of the room, wearing his trademark leather jacket and a plain, dark tie; he always managed to look relaxed.

Doug rested his elbows on the desk in front of him and wiped one hand absent-mindedly over his bald head, a familiar gesture. As usual, he was wearing an impeccably pressed white shirt and an unpretentiously expensive, pale grey suit.

“I believe you’ve met Vincent Riley” said Doug. “What did you make of him?”

“Well” I began “I’ve only seen him once…” I glanced at Reggie but I couldn’t pick up any sort of hint from his expression. “He looks quite young…” I continued feebly.

“What was his client like?” asked Doug.

“He was a building tradesman, apparently not competent at doing his own bookkeeping.”

Doug looked at Reggie who responded with an almost imperceptible nod of his head.

“Vincent Riley was going to do everything for him” I continued “and he seemed very happy with the arrangement.”

“Do you think Riley is reliable?” asked Doug.

I paused for a few moments of thought before starting to reply. “Well,” I said “I didn’t find anything wrong, but there was very little to see.” I wondered if I should mention my experience of Riley’s domestic circumstances, but that didn’t seem to be immediately relevant. Then I remembered my conversation with John. “I have heard that he was at Ashgrove’s for a time, but he left under something of a cloud. I don’t know the details.”

Doug and Reggie looked at each other again. Doug sat back in his chair and his face took on its most serious expression.

“We’ve got some information indicating that he may be stealing money from his clients” said Doug. “Unfortunately, even if it’s true, we can’t do much about it. It’s not a tax offence, we’ve got no evidence, and the amounts are likely to be quite small.”

“He had taken my chap’s cheque book” I said “apparently to make sure that his suppliers’ bills got paid.”                                                                                                        Reggie shifted himself to a more conventional posture, leaned forward in his chair and joined the conversation. “He picks up clients by chatting in pubs. He’s quite good at identifying the sort of self-employed people who find bookkeeping a chore. After a couple of pints they’re happy to let him take all that off their hands.”

“He would be good at that” I said thoughtfully. “He looks studious and he sounds conscientious.”

“We’re going to keep an eye on him” said Doug. “I’ve asked him to come in and see me later in the week. If he’s offering a genuine service to the sort of clients he seems to be attracting he could save us, and them, a lot of trouble; if not, we could have a problem. I’ve just told him that I like to meet new people operating in my area…” he glanced at Reggie “…and I won’t mention anything we’ve talked about today.”

“Let us know if you find out any more about him” said Reggie, waving to me as I left the room.

* * *

Time passed. There were visits to be done and small traders’ tangled accounts to be unravelled. One of my appointments was at an oriental restaurant in the basement of a Regency building along a side street a short distance from the local town centre. There were a number of such restaurants in the area, mostly serving Chinese or Indian food but, unusually for those times, this establishment was offering a menu of dishes from south-east Asia. The partners running the business were two men, probably in their thirties, who shared the necessary practical work between themselves without apparently employing any other staff. The premises were small and a little cramped; there was only room for four or five tables and if all the seats were occupied it would have been almost impossible to move around in the limited space available. I could understand why the partnership was declaring only a modest turnover, but it strained credulity that the business appeared to be making no profit at all; the mark-up applied by even such a modest catering establishment should have been more than enough to cover its day to day costs.

There were no obvious flaws in the restaurant’s accounts but I could not believe that the partners were surviving on such a tiny income. They were polite, and they seemed to be trying to answer my questions honestly even though their English was a little hesitant. Did they have other sources of income? Apparently not. Were they related to each other, brothers perhaps? No, apparently not; they did not know each other before they had started the restaurant. Did either of them have other family members in the town, or elsewhere in the country? No, they were on their own. A part of me wanted to believe everything they said, but the inner revenue official in my mind remained properly and professionally sceptical. It was clear that I would not be able to satisfy myself through the normal visiting procedure so I decided to report the case for further action.

Within a few days I had discussed the case with Shirley, who had been through some enhanced accountancy training, and together we had briefed the team of unselfish volunteers who made themselves available for evening meals out (in addition to their normal duties) so that the bookkeeping accuracy of our local restaurants could be checked in a practical way. The test eating team were enthusiastic about the potential for a successful outcome to my case; it seemed obvious that the declared takings of the business could not possibly be correct. It was agreed that six officers, in three pairs, would eat at the restaurant one evening, staggering their arrival so that they could fully cover the opening hours, note the number of other customers, and provide the information needed for an accurate estimate of that day’s takings. Shirley, who had something of the manner and appearance of a stern librarian, would then follow up this action by carrying out a formal visit as soon as possible to confront the partners with our evidence of their misbehaviour.

* * *

A few days before the valiant team of test eaters was due to sample the unknown culinary hazards of my restaurant, Reggie approached me at my desk with a simple request.                                                                                         “Can you do me a favour?”

“What sort?” I responded.

“Just give your friend Vincent a call for me.”

I wasn’t sure that I thought of Vincent Riley as a friend, but I couldn’t see any reason to decline.

“What do you want me to say?” I asked.

Reggie unfolded a computer print-out on the desk in front of me.

“This is our record of his VAT returns” he said. “He’s not paying us much, but that’s not the main point. This last return is a repayment claim and I’d like to know why.”

“It’s not very much” I said; the input tax Vincent had claimed on his expenses was obviously greater than usual but it was still a modest amount. “Has the return been rejected by the computer centre?”

“No,” said Reggie “that’s why I can’t really justify looking into it officially myself yet, but he’s met you and there’d be no harm in you just asking why his expenses have gone up.”

“Okay” I said “I’m busy now but I’ll try phoning him later today. I’ll let you know what he says.”

I had no problem contacting Vincent and he didn’t seem to be worried by my question about his tax return.

“I’ve bought a microfilm viewer,” he said “going cheap. It’s second-hand. I’m hoping to get some bigger clients and it could be useful then.”

“Right… er thanks,” I said “we just wondered what might be happening… er thanks again.”

Reggie allowed himself a hint of a frown when I repeated Vincent’s explanation to him.

“Well,” he said “it could even be true. At least it’s something that can be checked. I may drop in to see him when I can find some time.”

* * *

I expected to get feedback quite quickly from my colleagues’ foray at the oriental restaurant so I was rather disappointed that, several days afterwards, I had still not heard anything about it. I found a moment to visit Shirley’s desk and ask how the team had got on. She looked more than a little embarrassed and hesitated before answering me.

“To be honest,” she said eventually “it wasn’t a great success.” She paused, and then added: “You know we sent in six people, in pairs?”

I nodded.

“The total number of customers they had that evening” she continued “was seven.” She paused again.

“Have you checked their books?” I asked.

“Oh yes” said Shirley. “I made an unannounced visit the next day. The evening’s takings didn’t look quite right but if they had deliberately omitted anything it was probably that seventh customer’s payment. They were a bit ambiguous about it, but it seems likely that he was as much a personal friend of one them as a normal customer; he was certainly from their part of the world. I checked out their purchases and their bank records too, and I’ve still got no idea how they manage to keep going, but there’s no way I could come up with an assessment that would get past even a sleepy Tribunal chairman if they appealed against it.”

“Did you ask them how they survive?” I asked.

“Oh yes” said Shirley again. “They can feed themselves on surplus restaurant stock, of course, and, believe it or not, they say that their families are sending them money from home.”

We communed silently for a few moments.

“That’s it” Shirley eventually concluded. “I’m afraid that we’ll just have to put it down to experience; just another mystery of the Orient.”

* * *

Disappointment with the outcome of the restaurant case probably drove other things out of my mind and I had almost forgotten about Vincent Riley when he came to my attention again.

I was passing Doug’s office one day when, through the open door, I noticed that a small gathering was taking place there. Doug was sat at his desk, rubbing a hand over his bald head and Reggie was stood nearby. Facing them, with her back to me was a woman wearing a smart, black two-piece suit; I could also see the collar of an immaculate white blouse at her neck. Reggie noticed me outside and beckoned me in.

“I’m genuinely worried about this” the woman was saying. “It’s a very small sum and we’ll look quite ridiculous if the case is thrown out.”

“This is Mister Stanley, the officer who knows him best” said Reggie waving a hand in my direction. “Meet Miss Montague from Solicitor’s Office, here for the day from London. Tell her about Vincent Riley”                                            

“Oh, er… Hello” I said. Miss Montague had turned to face me and I was surprised to see that she was quite young and her formal work attire hadn’t entirely concealed her youth and femininity. I thought for a moment and then said: “Well, he’s softly spoken, very plausible… rather a pussy cat…”

“We’re off to Court in a minute,” Reggie explained “Mister Riley has an appointment with the magistrates.”

“Oh,” I said “I didn’t know. What’s he been up to?”

“You remember that call you made for me?” asked Reggie.

“About the repayment” I replied. “Yes; he’d purchased a microfilm reader, hadn’t he?”

“Not much of a microfilm reader” said Reggie. “I think it’s a biscuit tin with a hole in the base to fit a light bulb. It’s not a real purchase either; he probably made it himself, and typed his own purchase invoice; I’m sure it didn’t cost him anything.”

“But the claim’s for less than two hundred pounds of VAT” Miss Montague interjected; in a voice that combined nervousness with irritation. “We  wouldn’t even consider prosecuting such a small case normally, and now your officer is telling me that Riley will make plausible witness. I know that I’m still treated as a junior, but why have I been sent here at all?”

It was Doug who answered the question, rubbing a hand over his head again as he began to speak. “I’m sure you won’t have any problems,” he said. “It’s a very straightforward matter, and the money isn’t our main consideration. We’re hopeful that the local paper will have a reporter there; what we want is to get Riley’s name known around the town, so that potential clients may have second thoughts about employing him. He could become a thorough nuisance before long if we don’t do something about him now. If he actually pays a fine, and we get our tax back, that’ll be a bonus.”

“Time we were off” said Reggie. “I’ll take you in my car” he said to Miss Montague. “It may look a bit past it, but we don’t have far to go!”

The next day Reggie made a point of coming to see me at my desk. He had a broad smile on his face so I knew that he had good news.                               “How did it go?” I asked.

“Like a dream” he replied “but that’s not all.”

He sat on the corner of my desk. “Have you seen yesterday’s paper?” he asked.

“No” I said.

“Somebody else did” said Reggie. “The case was over before lunch, and the reporter from the local rag was able to get it into their afternoon edition. The story must have spread round the self-employed community surprisingly quickly, and people who’d given Riley their cheque books suddenly began checking up on their bank accounts.” He paused for a moment. “You remember the chap you were going to see the first time you met Vincent Riley?”

“Oh, yes” I said. “And..?”

“He was very nearly arrested for assault last night. There was quite a fracas in one of the town centre pubs. Riley still had a wonderful black eye this morning but, strangely enough, he didn’t seem inclined to press charges against anyone!”

That was the last we heard of Vincent Riley. Well, almost the last. It must have been two or three years later that Reggie took a phone call from a police station in a far away part of the country.

“We’ve detained one Vincent Riley for questioning about certain matters here” said the caller “but we understand that he may be a person of interest to you as well. Would you like to interview him while he’s in our hands?”

 “No thanks” said Reggie. “We won’t be needing him here again.”

The Salesman

One small technical explanation may help to clarify an aspect of this story. These days a single government department (HMRC) manages all of the UK’s tax systems, but this story is set some years ago when VAT and other indirect taxes were controlled and collected by HM Customs and Excise while income tax and other direct taxes were dealt with by the Inland Revenue; exchange of information between the two departments was limited and exceptional.

I imagine that Barry Parker must have been one of those boys who don’t shine at school, not because they lack intelligence or application but because they can’t see any point in pursuing knowledge for its own sake and they want to escape as soon as possible into the real world outside. After making that escape, Barry probably tried his hand at a variety of jobs while gradually working out how best to earn his living. He would soon have realised that prematurely gatecrashing the adult world was not a short cut to success, but he may have convinced himself that hard work really was better than exam qualifications, and regular overtime better than making do with an income limited to parental pocket money or a student grant.

Somewhere along the way Barry found his true calling. He was good at recognising the needs of others before they did so themselves, and he had a talent for persuasion; in short, he was a born salesman. By the time he was in his late thirties he had become a successful self-employed sales agent in the rapidly expanding double-glazing business; in addition to the commission he was earning from his own efforts he had also recruited a small team of part-time and less experienced sub-agents, and he was taking a cut from their commission too. He had achieved both the standard of living and the independence that he craved. He drove a powerful, up-market car, and the semi-detached house he shared with his wife and two or three children, was equipped with all the latest electronic appliances (and double-glazing, of course). The downside to all of this was that, thanks to the pressures of having to pay a mortgage and support a growing family, Barry’s determination to succeed by his own efforts had turned him into something of a workaholic.

I can only imagine this background to Barry’s circumstances because I never actually met him. In fact, I very nearly avoided dealing with his case at all after a preliminary phone call to his accountant. Barry’s file landed on my desk in the VAT Office because he had neither submitted his last three quarterly returns nor paid the subsequent assessments issued by the VAT Central Unit. It appeared likely that Barry’s accountant prepared the returns for his client so I decided to phone him first before trying to contact Barry himself. I would not necessarily have done this, but Rick Feather, the accountant, was a good-natured fellow and the most honest and reliable accountant that I knew.

In those days our local accountancy firms were mostly either partnerships of several qualified professionals supported by a number of articled clerks and clerical staff or they were one-man businesses where a single, overstretched professional operated with just one or two unqualified assistants. The larger firms were generally more reliable but they were also more expensive, so many small businesses preferred not to make use of them. Choosing between the one man bands was a somewhat hazardous undertaking. Accountants who worked alone almost inevitably took on more clients than they could reasonably cope with and, as the pressure on them built up, often compromised their standards one way or another. Some gave in to financial temptation and became dishonest in handling their own or their clients’ affairs, some declined into alcohol induced incompetence, many just fell further and further behind with their work as the piles of paper accumulated around them.

Rick was a refreshing exception to the general rule. He operated from a small, sparsely furnished first-floor office in a former Regency town house, with a loyal staff of three clerks located in an adjacent room. During the winter he sat at his desk wearing an overcoat and a very long woollen scarf which was wound round his neck several times and trailed on the floor when he stood up. Unlike any other accountant I ever met, he seemed to do the job simply because he enjoyed it, and it says something for his style and reputation that when he retired his clerks were able to continue in business for many years by forming a partnership to provide a book-keeping service to his former clients (although I think that they soon moved to rather less spartan premises).

I explained why I was phoning him.

“I’m afraid he won’t be sending you any more returns” said Rick. “He had a heart attack; I’ve been told that he’s given up work altogether. Sorry, I thought your office had been told.”

“I’ll start the ball rolling to get him deregistered” I responded.

I didn’t doubt Rick’s word for a moment but when I looked through Barry’s file again I realised that, because he had always been prompt and reliable in the past and had paid us a large amount of tax every quarter, he had never had a visit to check that his returns were actually complete and correct.

“Perhaps” I thought to myself, “it would be sensible to make sure that his records are checked just once before we cancel the registration.”

I was reluctant to pester the man himself and subject him to a potentially stressful and probably unnecessary intrusion at a time when he must have had other concerns on his mind. Happily, it occurred to me that the way a commission salesman’s business worked provided the possible means to carry out a check without needing to deal with him directly. All I had to do was arrange a visit to the double-glazing supplier he worked for and ask to see their record of Barry’s commission payments. They probably wouldn’t know about his expenses, but the tax he reclaimed on these was insignificant and, in the circumstances, I was confident that I could ignore that side of Barry’s accounts.

I phoned the double-glazing company and asked to speak to their accounts department.

“I’m not calling about your own VAT returns” I explained “but I’ve been asked to look at Mister Parker’s. I believe he was one of your salesmen but I understand that he’s no longer working following a heart attack. Rather than disturb him at home, I wonder if I could have a look at your record of the commission he’s been paid over the last two or three years.”

“Oh yes, of course. We’ve been very sorry to hear about his health problems. When would you like to come?”

If only all appointments had been that easy to arrange. A brief session at the double glazing company would help me to achieve my visiting targets even if, as I suspected, there was no additional revenue to be assessed.

* * *

The double glazing company operated from a unit on one of our local trading estates; the journey there only took me about ten minutes by car. The company’s front office was a typically featureless open plan space which someone had attempted to brighten up with a few, rather scanty Christmas decorations. Three desks were arranged somewhat randomly around the floor but only two of them were occupied. I approached the nearer one which was manned by a girl who looked as if she might be the receptionist.

“From the VAT Office” I said. “I’ve got an appointment with Mister Shaw; here’s my ID.”

“Oh yes, he’s expecting you” she replied. “I think he’s out the back. If you’d like to wait here I’ll find him for you.”

She disappeared through a door marked ‘Staff Only’ and returned a few moments later, accompanied by a tall man with greying hair and a slightly military bearing who reached out a hand and greeted me with a smile. He was wearing an open-necked shirt beneath his tweed jacket and radiated an informal but business-like manner.

“Come this way, Mister Stanley” he said “I’ve put the ledger you need in the Director’s office; he’s not here today so you won’t be disturbed.” He led me back through the door from which he had just emerged and pointed the way into a small but quite comfortably furnished office on one side of the short corridor we had entered. A bound red ledger was waiting for me on the Director’s desk; it was already open at the pages detailing Barry Parker’s commission payments.

“I’ll leave you to it but I won’t be far away if you have any questions. Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee?”

“Coffee, with milk but no sugar, please” I replied. As he left, I sat down and started to retrieve papers from my briefcase; all I really needed was the print-out of Barry Parker’s VAT returns. As I spread the print-out on the desk in front of me I glanced at the open ledger. Regular fortnightly payment dates were listed… and they ran right up to the first week of the current month, although the last entry recorded a significantly smaller amount of commission than for any of the previous payments noted on the page.

“Here’s your coffee.” The receptionist had slipped noiselessly into the room. She gave me a brief smile and placed one of those disposable plastic cups in a slightly sturdier plastic holder on a corner of the desk.

“Oh, thank you” I responded. “That was quick!” She smiled again and was gone. I sipped the bland, machine-made coffee and savoured the unexpected sense of astonishment that her intrusion had interrupted.

What was going on here? There would probably be a time lag between a sale being arranged and a commission payment being authorised, but weeks or months… it seemed unlikely. Perhaps Barry Parker’s loyal team of canvassers had kept going more or less independently and the fruit of their efforts was still being attributed to his account… There was little point in speculating, I would have to ask the accounts manager later. Meanwhile, I obviously needed to jot down the figures from the ledger in my notebook and compare them with the amounts shown on my computer print-out.

It was clear that the output tax declared on the VAT returns prepared by Rick Feather exactly reflected the amounts I could see in the ledger in front of me. The commission Barry Parker had been earning had increased continuously right up to the period covered by the last of those returns; he must have been working very hard. When the flow of returns stopped, our computer centre had started to issue assessments based on those previous returns. The estimated assessments were for reasonable sums but in fact the commission payments Barry Parker had been receiving had continued to increase, so I would have to issue a manual assessment of my own which, I was surprised to see, would run to a four figure sum. This demand would be in addition to the automatic assessments that he had already failed to pay, of course, and an unwelcome Christmas gift for him and his family.

I had just about finished when the accounts manager returned.

“How are you getting on?” he asked.

“Nearly done” I replied. “By the way, do you know exactly when Mister Parker was taken ill?”

“Let me see… It was a Wednesday; it must have been three weeks ago today. It was quite a shock to everyone here.” He paused for a moment before asking: “Have you found the details you need?”

“Yes, thank you” I said “I think I can get out of your way now; you’ve been most helpful.”

* * *

It didn’t take me long to complete the necessary paperwork but I spent a few minutes trying to word the official letter accompanying my assessment as gently as possible, littering it with phrases such as ‘It appears that…’ and ‘I am sorry to say…’ I also thought I should make sure that Rick Feather knew about his client’s situation. When I was passing his office a few days later I decided to ask if I could see him for a few minutes.

It was cold; the accountant was wearing his winter coat and his long scarf. A small electric fire was plugged in at the side of the room but it was failing to make much difference to the temperature.

“It’s about Mister Parker” I began “I think you should know what I’ve discovered since we spoke on the phone.”

“What’s that?” he asked. He did not show any signs of concern.

“He has had a heart attack” I paused “but it wasn’t until just over three weeks ago. Up until then his business was running as usual, rather well in fact.”

Rick looked quite stunned; he stared at me in disbelief.

“That… I don’t… No…” He struggled for words for a few moments before pulling himself together. “I persuaded the Inland Revenue to withdraw their last assessment, it wasn’t easy” he said acidly. It was the only time I ever saw Rick expressing something like real anger: “Now I’ll have to write them a grovelling letter of apology; they’ll never take my word for anything again.” He hesitated for a moment and then added: “That’s the last time I’ll be doing any work for that toerag..!”

I apologised for being the bearer of bad news and walked back out into the frosty town. It was only mid-afternoon but it was already getting dark. The Christmas lights had come on above the streets, the shop windows were bright and colourfully decorated and somewhere in the distance I could hear a brass band playing carols to collect money for charity and entertain the passers-by.

Death Taxes and Civil Engineering

This story is a fictionalised account of an encounter between a tax official and an antique dealer in a provincial English town. If you were living in that town between the 1960s and the 1980s you may recognise the well-known local character whose lifestyle, shop and house are depicted in the story. It is less likely that you will remember the bemused Customs and Excise officer who acts as the narrator.

A little explanation may help to clarify technical aspects of the story for readers unacquainted with relevant details of the VAT Act 1972. Because antique dealers would normally purchase most of their stock from private individuals they were only required to account for tax on the profit margin of each sale (whereas most businesses would reclaim the ‘input tax’ incurred on their stock purchases and account for ‘output tax’ on the full value of their sales). However, in order to take advantage of this concession, a dealer would necessarily have to keep a detailed stock book supported by invoices signed by his suppliers and customers: without these records a dealer became liable for tax on the full value of their sales.

The casual or, perhaps, obstructive attitude towards these official requirements displayed by the antique dealer in this story is just one of several causes of his problems…

* * *

I had often passed Winterburn’s shop and occasionally I had seen the man himself, either there or perched rigidly upright on the old-fashioned bicycle he used to get around the town. When the shop was open Winterburn sat impassively in a corner, apparently oblivious to both the squalor of his surroundings and to any potential customers who might be peering among the stacks of plates or wiping grime off a picture frame. Callers at his shop were always intrigued by the disordered juxtaposition of fine, but dirty, porcelain and solid oak furniture with old bicycles, rusting toolboxes, discoloured oil paintings, cheap kitchen chairs, brass coal scuttles and plastic clothes pegs. Sometimes he took a dislike to a customer and would refuse to serve them. “It’s not for sale,” he would say and then relapse into impenetrable silence. At auctions, playful competitors would bid against him for quite worthless items, just to see how much he would be prepared to pay for a broken kettle, some old golf balls or a box of yellowing paperbacks if he thought they were of some interest to another dealer.

At a time when most antique dealers presented themselves smartly, in a suit and tie, Winterburn was always dressed shabbily in an old jacket and trousers that matched his surroundings; he probably didn’t possess a tie, I don’t recall ever seeing him wearing one. He was clean-shaven, with some grey-white hair and although he was tall he was generally inconspicuous in appearance.

For several years following the introduction of Value Added Tax Winterburn failed to attract any attention from the Customs and Excise Department. He submitted his returns quarterly, sometimes paying a few pounds and sometimes claiming repayment of a few pounds. Although, in theory, every business registered for VAT was supposed to be inspected in rotation, given his apparently minimal tax liability and his reputation for eccentricity Winterburn might have been left alone more or less indefinitely, but eventually he sent in a return that breached one of the VAT computer’s acceptance criteria and drew attention to himself.

In those days the entire VAT system was run on a single computer located in Essex. When the computer rejected Winterburn’s return the original paper document had to be retrieved manually, attached to a header sheet and a print-out of his previous returns, and posted out to his local VAT office where it found its way to my in-tray. The explanatory header was partly printed in a bold red font to emphasise that, because a repayment claim had been delayed, the case must be dealt with urgently.

The reason for the query was obvious. In contrast to Winterburn’s previous history of small tax payments and repayments, on this occasion he was asking for a repayment of exactly £1600, a sum that was both unprecedented in size and curiously well-rounded. Now £1600 may sound like small change these days but at that time it represented a sizeable amount of money; it was likely as much or more than my net annual salary as a visiting officer in the Customs and Excise. Inevitably, the computer centre had requested an inspection of Winterburn’s business records to check his entitlement to the repayment.

I would normally have made a phone call to contact Winterburn, but there was no number in his file or in the public phone book so, in spite of the urgency, I had to send an appointment request letter, asking to see him a few days later. Unsurprisingly, the letter did not induce any response so when I set out for the appointment I had to trust that he would be waiting for me in his shop.

* * *

Winterburn was sitting in his usual place, a plain wooden chair at the front of the shop but in the far corner from the street door. When I introduced myself he said nothing but, with a minimal gesture directed me to a stool a few feet closer to the door. There was a long wooden table against the front window of the shop and I found a space on it among the bric-a-brac to put down my briefcase. I sensed that Winterburn was not a man for small talk or personal chit-chat so I decided to get straight down to business. There was, in any case, no sign on the premises of any provision for making tea or coffee.

“I need to see your business records, Mister Winterburn. Have you got them here?”

He still said nothing, but he opened a drawer in the table, close to where he was sat, and pulled out some pieces of paper. I could easily see that on these scraps were written, casually but not untidily, the same figures that appeared on the print-out of returns that I had brought with me. It was a start, I supposed, but it didn’t really get me very far. There was a VAT registration certificate with these unannotated summaries and I spent a few moments checking the information on that; I noticed that Winterburn had not given us any bank account details.

“Do you keep a stock book?” I asked.

Winterburn actually looked slightly irritated by the question and pointed to the papers in front of me. “That’s what I paid and that’s the sale” he said.

“Right” I responded. “So er… how do you know exactly what you paid for something?” There didn’t seem to be an answer to this question. I thought I should ask to see his bank statements.

“What do you want those for?” he responded, a little testily. “They’re not here.”

I decided to change the subject while I considered how to proceed.

“Have you always been here?” I asked.

“No” he replied, rather to my surprise. “I started business in another town.”

“Why did you move?”

“It was on a main road. The traffic outside was shaking the building and caused subsidence.”

I glanced around the shop. It clearly hadn’t even been cleaned for several decades. There was a rickety staircase at the back giving access to to an upper floor but I had already decided that I wasn’t going to risk setting foot on it. I had little doubt that the attic above was at least as cluttered as the space where we were sat. I thought about how much more traffic there was now than there had been back in the fifties (which was my guess of the time he was referring to) and quietly guessed that there might have been another reason for the deterioration of his original premises.

Only a few minutes, perhaps a quarter of an hour, had passed since my arrival but I was acutely aware that my enquiries were not progressing satisfactorily and my usual approach to conducting visits was not proving fruitful. It seemed sensible to come to my main purpose and raise the matter of Winterburn’s large outstanding repayment claim.

“On your last return” I said “you’ve asked us for a very large amount of money. What’s given rise to that?”

“It’s the building work” said Winterburn. “I’ve had to have a lot done.”

For a few moments I was lost for words.

“The Council have made me pay for the underpinning” said Winterburn. “It’s very expensive.”


“The end wall was leaning outwards. They said that the whole terrace might collapse if it wasn’t rebuilt.”

Winterburn’s shop stood on a street corner, so it was at one end of a terrace of retailers, but I thought I would have noticed if there had been such an obvious problem with the building, and I couldn’t see why, even if there was a problem, it would have any immediate impact on the neighbours. I had the impression that Winterburn was talking about work that had already been done, but perhaps he was describing a necessary job that he had been invoiced for in advance.

“An invoice” I said aloud, “have you got an invoice?”

In contrast to Winterburn’s apparently casual attitude towards providing records of his normal business activities, he quickly produced an impeccably detailed professional invoice from a civil engineering consultancy describing the works required to underpin and rebuild the end wall of a large Regency house in one of the unspoilt historic corners of the town. The VAT chargeable on the works was £1600.

“But this isn’t for your shop” I pointed out.

“It’s where I live” he replied.

“Well” I said “maybe so, but you can only recover VAT incurred on business expenses. Your house is a private matter. Any tax you pay for repair and maintenance there is a cost you have to bear yourself.”

“I keep my stock there” said Winterburn. I was beginning to detect signs of prior preparation and dogged persistence in his manner. I didn’t believe that he could be using his private residence as a stock warehouse but I thought that, in fairness, I should follow up his assertion.

“Can I see it?” I asked


“If it’s not inconvenient”

No passers-by or serious customers had interrupted our discussion and Winterburn did not see any objection to taking me to his house, which was not far away. He locked up the shop and we walked across the main road outside and along a short nearby side street, then we turned left into Laurel Hill, one side of which was lined by a long, attractive Regency terrace of three or four storey houses built for the prosperous merchants and professionals of a bygone era. His house was the first one round the corner, and the end wall we passed on the way had indeed recently undergone complete reconstruction; the works had clearly extended below ground level to provide support for the building above. Given the attractiveness of the whole row, which was on a gentle slope down towards Winterburn’s property, I could understand the local authority’s concern that if the end wall collapsed the whole terrace would become vulnerable.

A forecourt may once have extended along the whole frontage of the terrace, providing a parking place for a line of horse-drawn carriages waiting to serve the needs of the residents. Now it was more broken up, but two neglected old cars, one a Rover model that I remembered from my childhood, stood conspicuously in the space which Winterburn had to share with his closest neighbours.

“Are those yours?” I asked, with genuine interest.

“No” he replied, curtly. It occurred to me that perhaps their presence had caused him problems with his tidier neighbours.

We climbed three or four stone steps up to the rather grand double front door. Winterburn unlocked one side and we entered the hallway, in single file and almost sideways as for most of its width the passage was stacked with books from floor to the high Regency ceiling.

“This lot must keep you occupied” I said.

Winterburn looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh, you mean by reading them” he replied, thoughtfully; the idea seemed to surprise him.

A gap in the books revealed a doorway that gave access to a large room, or would have done if the room had not been filled with a chaotic jumble of furniture, appliances, tools, china and who knows what else. It was like the interior of the shop but without any gaps through which movement might be possible. We passed on to peer into more rooms, and look down the stairs leading to the basement which he had blocked by tossing in a heap of old paperback books. Apparently burglars had tried to break in by that route and Winterburn had decided to make a second attempt impossible.

The staircase to the upper floors was being used for storage space as much as the hallway by which we had entered the building. The Victorian ladies who once, no doubt, swept down the stairs gliding in their vast crinolines would have been deeply shocked to find their way so inconveniently impeded by all manner of obstacles piled, sometimes precariously, in their path. The wide landings, where the staircase changed direction, had been reduced to narrow twisting culverts by old tables and wardrobes holding mounds of crockery, piles of moth-eaten clothes and curtains, jars and bottles and pieces of rusting machinery of uncertain provenance and purpose.

Some of the rooms on the upper floors showed signs of attempted organisation. One, for example contained only unframed paintings, stacked upright, each leaning on the next, in rows across the floor. There were so many that even this room was almost impossible to enter although, because of the free space above the pictures, it seemed strangely empty compared with all the others. Somehow, because of the need to demolish and rebuild the end wall of the building, either the contractors or Winterburn himself had managed to clear a strip, a yard or so wide, adjacent to that wall in each of the rooms but, of course, this must have added to the disorder elsewhere.

Winterburn did not say much about any of this, but at one point he did confide: “I’ve been ordered to reduce the load on all the floors.” I was feeling too amazed to say anything at all.

Eventually we came to a place on the second or third floor where, in a room as cluttered as any other, Winterburn had used some sort of frame hung with old curtains to partition off a small, cramped area containing a tiny single bed and an equally tiny table carrying an obsolete two ring portable electric stove. The bed was in a rickety state, its wooden chassis supported at one corner by a pile of books; the only bedclothes appeared to be a rough, grubby blanket and a thin, inadequate quilt. The stove badly needed a good clean; resting on it were one or two old saucepans and a blackened frying pan. A half-used can of baked beans took up some of the little remaining space at the edge of the table. There was also a small single bar electric fire on the floor under the bed.

“Is this where you live?” I asked, finding my voice at last.

“Yes” said Winterburn. He did not sound regretful or embarrassed; he just stated it as a fact.

At the end of the tour we slipped carefully back down the staircase through the same narrow path we had negotiated on the way up. There would have been little point in returning to the shop and I decided to bring the visit to an end, if not a conclusion, as we emerged from the front door of the house.

“Thank you for your time, Mister Winterburn. You should get my decision within the next few days.” I shook him by the hand and was surprised by the firmness of his grip; he nodded, and I set off in the direction of the spot where I had left my car.

* * *

In my own mind I was sure what that decision had to be. It was true that nobody in their right mind could reasonably describe Winterburn’s house as a normal private residence but, on the other hand, was it really possible to say that the chaotic cornucopia of contents he had accumulated there amounted to stock on hand for his retail business? Furthermore, his business records, at least those he had shown to me, were hopelessly inadequate for official purposes. In my report I stated that the jumbled, uncatalogued material in the house could only be regarded as Winterburn’s private collection; there was no practical way he could offer individual items for sale and there was no evidence that he had even tried to set up the stock book he should have been keeping for tax purposes. I completed the paperwork needed to deny him the £1600 repayment he had claimed and passed the case on to Terry, my line manager, for his approval.

The next day Terry said: “Bit of a one-off, that antique dealer.”

“Yes, something of a local character, I believe” I replied.

“So we need to be diplomatic and we mustn’t put a foot wrong… I’m supposed to do a follow-up to one of your visits now and then, you know. I don’t doubt your report but I think I’d better go and check some details before we send the case back to the computer centre” Terry concluded. I smiled quietly to myself and thought it would be interesting to be a fly on the wall while Terry was looking round Winterburn’s house and discussing the finer points of VAT law with him.

A few days later I asked Terry how his return visit had gone. He looked just a little evasive.

“Well” he began, “It’s tricky…” he hesitated for a moment. “I’ve put in my own report with yours and they’re both on Mister Johns’ desk now; he’ll have to decide…” Jimmy Johns was our Surveyor, the next in line going up through the hierarchy; he had earned his promotions by working at Headquarters in London but lacked the coal-face experience that came with time spent in a local office. “I don’t think he really knows what to do” Terry continued “and when I spoke to him this morning he was talking about going out to see the place for himself.” We both smiled at this prospect and I wondered how Winterburn would cope with a third intrusive visitor from Customs and Excise.

I presumed that I would eventually learn what happened after that, but for some reason I never heard anything more at all. Quite likely Jimmy Johns added a report of his own to the case file and then sent the whole collection off to his old Headquarters friends to accumulate yet more comment and some authoritative legal opinions… Meanwhile, other cases took my attention at work; memories of the morning I had spent with Winterburn began to fade, but they never entirely disappeared.

* * *

Several years passed by. I often glanced at Winterburn’s shop when I was in the town but I never ventured back inside. The place always looked the same to me and only very rarely seemed to have attracted any possible customers. Winterburn’s opening hours gradually became more and more erratic and sometimes the shop remained closed for days on end. The man himself, on the rare occasions when I caught a glimpse of him, was gradually becoming older and thinner, and looking ever more detached from the busy everyday life of the streets outside his own enclosed, cluttered world.

One day, when I happened to be walking up Laurel Hill on my way to or from a work appointment, I noticed an ambulance parked on the road outside Winterburn’s house. There was no sign of the ambulance crew, but as I got closer I saw that a uniformed policeman was perched on the steps up to his door. Behind him, one of the double front doors stood ajar. It was none of my business, but I had a little time to spare and curiosity got the better of me. I turned into the forecourt and approached the constable.

“Excuse me” I said, looking up at him: “Has something happened to old Mister Winterburn?”

After glancing at my official briefcase with its EiiR logo he must have decided that I had a legitimate reason for asking: “Found dead in his bed this morning” he replied.

“Oh, er… how did..?”

“Friend called to check up on him. They hadn’t seen him for a while.” The police constable sounded glad to have someone to talk to: “We had a dickens of a job getting inside” he continued, “and they’re having even more trouble now trying to get him out.”

We could hear faint sounds of objects being moved and muttered conversation somewhere above us inside the house. I remembered Winterburn leading me up and down his constricted staircase and the sharp turns at the landings on the way. “I can imagine” I said. “They must be having to bend his body to get it round some of the corners.”

“Rigor mortis” said the constable, allowing himself a half discreet grin. “Stiff as a board, they say; like trying to carry a flagpole down the Eiffel Tower.” He looked at his wristwatch: “Three-quarters of an hour so far!”

“Oh” I said.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, if at all, but my new acquaintance was enjoying our conversation. “All that junk” he continued: “Maybe a Ming vase somewhere or a Picasso hiding among the rubbish. Who knows, eh?”

“Who indeed” I replied, but my mind was already elsewhere. I had started to walk back across the forecourt towards the road outside and I was wondering, as I still do, just what the Customs and Excise Department’s final decision had been in the case of that old £1600 repayment claim.

Educational Visits

During the first twelve months following the introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT) on 1 April 1973 the visiting staff of the local VAT offices of HM Customs and Excise spent their time carrying out ‘educational visits’. The main purpose of these visits was to ensure that the many thousands of newly registered taxpayers understood what was expected of them in respect of their business records and legal obligations; the visits also provided an opportunity for the Department to check that the basic information it held about them on the (yes,there was just one) VAT computer in Southend was correct.

As no detailed checking of traders’ records was required, it was a more relaxed time for the visiting staff than in later years. However, there were a few pressures; in particular, it was assumed that it should be possible for a visiting officer to carry out at least two educational visits in a day. This does not sound unreasonable and was probably an unremarkable requirement in urban environments where an officer could work his way (there were no ‘hers’ then in the executive grades) along a busy High Street, moving from one well-run business to the next without even needing to catch a bus. It was a different matter in rural areas where the traditional method of bookkeeping was to pass a large pile of unsorted pieces of paper to your accountant no more than once a year, and an officer might have to drive on unfamiliar roads in his unreliable second-hand car between appointments. Even so, you may think that the following fictionalised account exaggerates the experience of a typical day in the life of one of those officers: well, believe it or not…

The village of Hardestone lies just outside the boundaries of my local town. The property developers will inevitably arrive there sooner or later but, even now, its extensive fields and copses remain largely untouched by the encroaching residential developments and small industrial estates that have marked the arrival of the modern world in many of the other parishes at the fringes of the built-up area. The village centre, no more than a few old houses and a parish church, is on a back lane and quite invisible from the main road. Around it, somewhat detached from the village itself, are a number of scattered farms, one or two of them a fair size but not conspicuously prosperous, others no more than struggling smallholdings. Being located several miles away from the more attractive landscape of the county’s limestone hills, Hardestone is by-passed by lovers of the photogenic English country scene and ignored by wealthy potential incomers of the kind that has helped to maintain the fabric of so many other villages while destroying their communities.

I was looking for Pear Trees, and I had an idea that I had seen that name on a low, rather dirty board at the side of the road on some previous occasion. Fortunately, I was right; the sign was there at the entrance to a muddy track, not far from where the lane met the main road. The track turned a right angle and brought me into a small yard in front of a bungalow that was surprisingly well hidden by the trees at the side of the lane. The bungalow could not have been very old, but it looked poorly constructed and badly maintained; no attempt seemed to have ever been made to create any sort of garden around it. There were no other vehicles in the yard, the place looked abandoned.

The front door was made from a plain sheet of hardboard. There was no bell or knocker, so I rapped on it with my knuckles. Faint sounds of movement came to my ears and eventually the door was opened by a short man wearing baggy grey trousers, an old, dirty open-necked shirt and an even older waistcoat. He had grey hair and had obviously not shaved that morning, but he didn’t appear to need spectacles. I guessed he was in his late fifties, or maybe a little older.

“Mister Hawkins? I’m Mister Stanley from the VAT Office” I said, introducing myself.
He grunted and turned away from me, leaving the door open. I took this as an invitation to enter. He turned to my right immediately inside the door, which opened into one side of a short hallway. As I closed the door behind myself, I glanced down the passage in the opposite direction and saw that it led to a scullery with plain, plastered walls and an old-fashioned earthenware sink under the window. A woman wearing a long, plain skirt and with her hair perched in a bun on top of her head was stood with her back to me bending over the sink; she might have been doing some washing-up or she might have been peeling potatoes, I couldn’t tell. Memory plays tricks, but when I thought about it later I could have sworn that she was standing on top of an upturned tin bath to reach the sink more easily.

I followed Mr. Hawkins into a room that was no more decorated than either the hallway or the scullery, but which did have a rough wooden table and several wooden chairs. I noticed that there was a cable for an electric light hanging above the table but, like the similar fitting in the hallway, it lacked a bulb. There were a few ashes in the grate, but otherwise no sign of any kind of heating. I left my coat on and sat down at the table. Mr. Hawkins seemed to prefer to remain standing. A small pile of documentation lay on the table in front of me. I could see one or two invoices from a large local agricultural merchant, something that looked like a typical statement from Gloucester Market and a conspicuously new, green accounts book of the kind currently selling successfully to many of the newly VAT-registered small business community, particularly those who had never tried to keep their own business records previously.

“Is your registration certificate there?” I asked. Mr. Hawkins grunted; he picked up the accounts book and opened it to reveal the certificate inside the front cover. “Thanks” I said; I placed it on the table next to the file copy I had taken out of the folder from my briefcase. “George Hawkins,” I said “is that your full name?” Mr. Hawkins grunted again. “We don’t have any bank details” I continued. “Do you have an account? It might be more convenient for you if we could make repayments directly into an account rather than you having to cash payable orders all the time.” Mr. Hawkins grunted yet again; something about his body language told me that this was a dissenting, negative grunt. “Well” I said “it’s your choice.” I took my pen out of my jacket pocket and signed the file copy of the certificate to confirm that it agreed with Mr. Hawkins’ copy and was, as far as I could tell, correct. I paused for a moment and realised that I was certifying Mr. Hawkins’ business as that of ‘Mixed Farming’ with an annual turnover of only £1000, the minimum amount allowed for by our official forms.

I picked up the green accounts book. The complicated layout of its pages had surely been designed by a knowledgeable, experienced bookkeeper. The book was intended to cover just one full year’s business, with provision for quarterly VAT account summaries and with pages sub-divided to cover every conceivable accountancy complication: daily gross takings, self-supplies, non-deductible inputs, retail scheme calculations, non-business transactions, exempt outputs, partial exemption calculations… Very occasionally I came across remarkably well-organised bookkeepers who knew how to make successful and efficient use of all this complexity, but most users just had to ignore all the headings and fit their own records and calculations into the pages as best they could. The publisher that produced these books presumably looked forward to making a killing each year by the sale of pristine replacements when all four quarters’ records had been completed, but whether this was how things actually turned out I have my doubts.

When I looked at Mr. Hawkins’ book, I was not surprised to see that so far he had only used the first page, entering a few lines in spidery, smudged writing; there was a column of expenses and, in a separate section of the page, a single item of income. I picked the market statement out of the papers in front of me; it confirmed the sale that Mr. Hawkins had recorded, just £300 for water cress. “Is that all you’ve sold so far this year?” I asked. Mr. Hawkins grunted yet again. I turned my attention to the purchases; there were bills for a few fence posts and wire, and some small purchases of diesel fuel from the nearest garage. I wondered where the vehicle (I imagined an ancient, battered Land-Rover) might be parked, but I decided that it wasn’t worth asking the question.

“Well…” I began. I went through my established routine of advice, or as much of it as seemed even remotely relevant (which was very little) while Mr. Hawkins listened in silence. Eventually I ran out of things to say and, being satisfied in my own mind that I had told Mr. Hawkins everything he needed to know to comply faultlessly with the VAT Act 1972, I thanked him for his time, returned my folder of papers to my briefcase and got up to leave. Mr. Hawkins saw me to the door and grunted, politely I thought, as I stepped outside.

* * *

“Not even the offer of a cup of tea!” I said to myself as I drove away. “Still, it won’t take long to write the report.”

It was then that I realised I had forgotten to pick up a map before setting out from home that morning. However, I knew that the other visit I had booked for the day was down a dead-end side turning off the back lane I had already driven down on my way to find Pear Trees. If I spotted the junction I should have no problem finding the farm that was my second destination. After I had travelled some distance back along the lane I saw a turning ahead. I hesitated before taking it as there was no helpful signpost in sight but although the road was narrow it was properly surfaced and headed off between the fields in a straight line that reminded me of the route I had picked out on the map the previous day.

It occurred to me that if, in fact, this was not the right way, I was going to be in some difficulty finding a suitable place to turn around. Not only was the surfaced road very narrow but also deep ditches ran alongside it, on both sides, and there were none of those slightly wider ‘passing places’ that are usually a feature of English country lanes. My anxiety increased when I noticed grass growing down the middle of the track, and the extent and vigour of the grass seemed to be increasing as I drove on.

I could not see any farm buildings ahead of me as I drove along the lane and I was taken by surprise when I came across an isolated house, with one or two small outbuildings, behind a privet hedge at the side of the road. I was expecting Green Farm to be a rather bigger establishment but, as there was nothing else in sight, it seemed that this had to be the place I was looking for. The ditch on that side of the road disappeared into a culvert in front of the buildings, but there was not enough room for me to park properly off the road as a car was blocking the way immediately inside the narrow entrance to the parking spaces at the side of the house. I pulled off the lane as best I could, still wondering how I would manage a three, or more likely ten point turn when it was time to leave.

A small garden gate a few feet further on gave access to a short path that led straight to the front door. The place looked more like a displaced late Victorian town house than a farm. I rang the doorbell. After a few moments the door was opened by a man wearing glasses and dressed in an unpretentious suit and tie. He looked rather surprised.

“I’m Mister Stanley, from the VAT Office” I said, pulling my ID card from my pocket. He blinked at the card but continued to look surprised. “You should have received an appointment letter from me.”

“Oh, good; you’d better come in” he said. “Do you want to see my books?”

“Please” I replied. He led me into a room with a dining table ringed by cushioned chairs. “Make yourself comfortable” he said. “Would you like a drink? Tea, coffee? I’ll put the kettle on.”

“Coffee, please” I said, “milk but no sugar.” He nodded and disappeared. After a few moments he returned carrying a box file that he put down on the table. “You might as well start looking at these” he said before disappearing again for several minutes. I opened the box file and found that it contained an old school exercise book, adapted to serve as a simple accounts book, and several folders of invoices and other documents.

I had a well-established routine for educational visits. I usually began by asking to see the VAT registration certificate of the business, followed by a chat to ensure that I knew exactly what I was dealing with before taking a look at the records to satisfy myself that they were being kept properly. However, in contrast to my previous, difficult session this visit looked as if it was going raise no problems, so I decided that I could afford to be more relaxed and informal. I could tell from even a brief scrutiny of the records that this man was a competent bookkeeper and knew what he was doing.

“Have you been here long?” I asked, when he had returned with coffee and biscuits; the coffee was in rather nice china cups, with saucers.

“About three years” he said. “I was a company director before that.” He named one of the many engineering firms that brought continuing prosperity to the nearby town. “I didn’t enjoy the pressure and I couldn’t keep up with the technology; it was time to give somebody younger a chance. I persuaded them to make me redundant… and I’d always fancied being a farmer. We used our savings and my redundancy money to buy this place.”

“How’s it going?” I asked.

He laughed. “We’re not making a profit, yet” he replied. “We just keep a few sheep and cattle and rent out a bit of grass keep, but we love it here.” He paused. “We’re not dependent on the farming business. We still have some savings left, and my wife works in town; she’s a staff nurse at the General.”

Well, that explained a few things that had been puzzling me, and it all tied in with the neat, orderly paperwork I could see in the box file. I asked a few more questions about some of the sales and purchases recorded there and checked that he understood the boundary between business and private transactions. He seemed to have a sound grasp of all the possible pitfalls that could affect his VAT account, and he had obviously read the appropriate public notices with real understanding, which was unusual. Eventually I felt that I had covered all the relevant ground and that it was time to call it a day.

“I don’t think there’s anything else…” I said, standing up; but then I remembered what I hadn’t done. “Oh, I just need to check your VAT registration certificate; have you got it handy?” He disappeared for a last time and returned with the certificate. “Sorry” he said. “It should have been in the file with everything else.”

I glanced at the certificate. It had been issued to Richard William Simpson, address: Hardestone Villa… I hastily retrieved my notebook, which I had already put into my briefcase, so that I could jot down the details. “Er…” I said. “So, this isn’t Green Farm?”

“No, Green Farm is further on, at the end of the lane” said Mr. Simpson; he was looking slightly surprised again.

“Ah, right. Thank you” I said. “I won’t take up any more of your time.” I prepared to leave, trying not to appear too hurried.

* * *

I returned to my car, fastened the seat belt and resumed my drive along the lane, hoping that I would not have to negotiate complicated apologies for lateness when I arrived at Green Farm. The road surface neither improved nor deteriorated further as I made my way towards the end of the lane. Green Farm proved to have quite a large group of buildings, as I had expected, but they were largely hidden behind a hedgerow lined by the full-grown elm trees that typically concealed all the settlements in the Vale from each other in those days. Dutch Elm Disease would destroy those trees and permanently open up the landscape within a year or two.

I parked in the farmyard, a roughly surfaced area ringed by unremarkable outbuildings of grey breeze blocks and black corrugated iron. The farmhouse itself had been constructed in an older red brick style of a kind commonly seen in the lowland parts of the county.

I used the heavy, old iron knocker on the farmhouse door. It was opened by a portly man wearing an open-necked check shirt, tweed jacket and mud-spattered, corduroy trousers. I didn’t want to make any mistake about who I was dealing with: “Mister Woodcock?” I asked. “I’m Mister Stanley from the VAT Office.”

“I’ve been expecting you” he said. “Come in, my daughter will look after you.” I stepped inside and found that I was in a large hall with a flagstone floor. “Rosie!” he called out and a slender girl wearing horse-riding kit appeared through a door on the far side of the room. She looked about fifteen, although she may have been a year or two older. I turned to speak again to Mr. Woodcock, but he had vanished; it was clear that he had made a speedy exit into the yard.

I looked at the girl and she looked back at me. “This way” she said and turned to go back through the door she had just used to enter the hall. I followed her into a more comfortable sitting room and then along a short passage to a door that seemed to be in the back wall of the house, but opened into quite a large room with a high ceiling and a worn linoleum floor covering, lit by a row of windows high up on the far side. It occurred to me later that it may once have been an indoor games room, but now it seemed to have no particular purpose. There was a large, empty space in the centre of the room, but there were tables against all the walls, except at the doorway, and the tables were piled high with paperwork of all kinds. A few of the piles were relatively neat, as if someone had started sorting them through, but they were mostly chaotic and it appeared that magazines, letters, directories, invoices and newspapers had simply been thrown onto one or another of the heaps without any attempt at orderliness. “This is it” said the girl, and then she stood quietly waiting for my reaction.

“Rosie, is it?” I asked. She nodded. “So, is this your job?” She nodded again. There were no chairs in the room so I chose the least cluttered table, pushed some of the papers on it to one side and sat myself down. I didn’t know where to start.

“I haven’t really done anything yet” said Rosie. “My sister was supposed to look after all of this. She was studying bookkeeping at college.”

“So, where is she now?” I asked.

“Australia” said Rosie. “She emigrated, three weeks ago.”

“Had she started an accounts book?” I asked. Rosie inclined her head and gave a small shrug. “What about the VAT registration certificate?” I asked.

“Oh, I know where that is” said Rosie. She retrieved it from among some market invoices. “I looked for it when your letter arrived the other day.”

Thankful that I could tick off at least one of the items on my mental checklist, I scrutinised the certificate carefully and confirmed all the detail on it with Rosie’s help. While doing this, I was thinking frantically about how to conduct the rest of the visit. I decided that the most important thing was to ensure that Rosie had some understanding of the Department’s bookkeeping requirements. I followed this up with the usual warnings about such things as private expenses and sales of assets. In the absence of proper records, there seemed very little point in trying to pick out and examine the invoices scattered around on the tables.

It would have been helpful to speak again, properly, to Mr. Woodcock himself; it was, after all, his business and handling the VAT records correctly was his own responsibility. However, there was no sign of him in the house or the farmyard when I left.

* * *

Hardestone was only a few miles from the office so, although I felt as if I had been to the far side of the universe that day, I decided to call in there rather than go straight home. On my arrival I dumped my briefcase on my desk and then went straight to the kitchen, to make use of the kettle (we didn’t have coffee machines in those days). Terry, one of the office local lads, was slumped in a chair there, a mug in his hand.

“Ah, hello!” he said. “You look as if you’ve had a hard day. Where have you been?”

“Hardestone” I said.

“Oh, yes” he said. “Did I see old Hawkins on your schedule?”

“In a shabby little hutch called Pear Trees?” I responded. “Do you know him?”

“Not had the pleasure” said Terry “but the family’s quite well known. Did you see the son, by any chance?”

“Son?” I queried. “I only saw the man himself, and his wife, I think.”

“Ah, ignorance is bliss then. He attacked his father with an axe some time last year and had to spend time in the mental hospital. I heard they were letting him out last month.”

“I didn’t know about that” I said.

I took my coffee back to my desk, but suddenly I just wanted to go home and write up my reports in comfort, and then enjoy a good night’s sleep in readiness for the next day’s educational visits.

The Milkman

This story is set in the mid-1970s, an age of innocence when milk was still delivered to your doorstep and the arcane art of bookkeeping was not necessarily understood even by those who needed to know. Small business proprietors and undertrained revenue officials alike struggled to understand each other’s ways and cope with the unexpected complexities of the newfangled Value Added Tax (VAT) system, introduced on 1 April 1973. The story is fictitious, but it includes elements retrieved from personal memory and, I think, realistically describes something of the circumstances encountered by Customs & Excise visiting officers in those days.

I scrutinised the file while I was eating my toast.
“Milkman.” I thought. “First visit; what can possibly go wrong?”
There wasn’t much to see in the file, understandably as this was in the early days. We had only just started inspecting traders’ books so the paperwork hadn’t had a chance to build up and, as this man hadn’t even had an ‘educational’ visit yet, there was only a handful of basic forms to look through. His name was John Short, he was a milk roundsman and he submitted his VAT returns monthly; that was about all there was to it. The print-out of his returns was quite typical for a milkman; each month there was a small amount of input tax claimed and sometimes a very small amount of output tax declared.
“Petrol for his milk float” I thought “and a bit of tax due on sales of… orange squash, perhaps?”

It was only a ten minute drive from my house to his, which was at the far end of one of the nearby villages, a place at the edge of our local town. I was able to finish my breakfast in a leisurely way before I set off, and then I had no problem finding my way along familiar country roads.
“Mister Short?” I enquired when he opened the door to me.
“And you’ll be Mister Stanley” he responded, agreeably enough, glancing at my brief case. In those days we carried our papers in official black briefcases which bore a small but distinctive EIIR logo on the flap, confirming our status as servants of the Crown. He stepped to one side to let me into the house. He sat me at the dining table. “I’ll get my wife to put the kettle on” he said. “Tea or coffee?”
“Coffee would be nice; milk but no sugar, please.”
This was all going very well. There was no sign that Mister Short had any reluctance to deal with me and it seemed unlikely that he would embark on one of the usual preliminary rants about ‘interfering Government officials’ or ’having to keep unnecessary records’ before we got down to business.

Before the coffee arrived we made a start on looking at Mr. Short’s business records. He produced a couple of sales invoice books, their carbon copy pages displaying the usual variable degree of legibility, some loose sheets of bank statements, and a folder of invoices from the dairy interspersed with (also as usual) tatty petrol receipts from an assortment of local garages. There was nothing unexpected about this document collection except, perhaps, that the purchase invoices were more or less in date order.

I was just asking Mr. Short if he could show me his VAT registration certificate when the coffee arrived, and a small plate of biscuits. I smiled a ‘thank you’ to Mrs. Short who was wearing her coat and was apparently on her way out of the house. She smiled back. “Off to catch the bus” she said. “Have you got everything you need?” I nodded politely and she went on her way.

Mr. Short had retrieved his certificate from a drawer in the dresser at the side of the room. “She pays the suppliers for me and looks after that folder of invoices, and she writes the customers’ bills” he said “but I have to do the tax returns myself; she won’t touch that job.” I checked the certificate against the information in my official file; the details seemed to be correct.

“So you do the return for us each month, do you?” I asked.
“That’s right, no problem.” We both sipped our coffee.
“Then you must keep a record of your takings and purchases somewhere” I hinted.
“They’re a bit rough” he replied. The drawer was opened again, and its contents yielded a small pile of undoubtedly rough pieces of paper of various sizes and origins, each marked with columns of figures and their totals, but with no helpful indication of the sources or meaning of the numbers.
“There’s one for each month” said Mr. Short.
“Right.” As there was no way of telling which month any of the sheets represented I selected one at random and tried relating it to the print-out in my own file. “This looks like September” I said, as the totals on the sheet bore some resemblance to the figures that had been declared on that month’s return. I looked in the purchase invoice file to see if I could pick out the details that appeared on Mr. Short’s handwritten list. I couldn’t.

Mr. Short may have noticed my hesitation as I tried another month with a similar result. “I don’t look at those bills myself” he said helpfully, “if I do, I get them mixed up and then I get told off by the wife.”
“So, er… how do you..?” I asked, rather feebly. I was beginning to realise that Mr. Short, although he may have been an excellent milkman, undoubtedly had a problem with figures, even if he was unaware of it himself.
“I know my round” he said confidently “I know my customers, and I’ve been dealing with the dairy ever since I started.” He was positively beaming with obvious pride. “We give everything to the accountant once a year” he continued “but he told us that it would be better if we did the VAT ourselves.”

“Right” I said, again. Fortunately, there was still plenty of coffee in my cup. I sipped thoughtfully while I considered how I should proceed.

What, I wondered, was my job here? I had confirmed that Mr. Short existed and that he was trading as a milk roundsman; the registration details we held on our computer were correct. I needed to confirm that he understood how the VAT system worked and his responsibilities: well, he understood that he should send in his returns monthly, and he clearly understood the basis on which the returns should be compiled. The only problem was with the sums he declared on those returns. Should I spend several hours painstakingly constructing my own version of a VAT account for his business and, if I did, would the outcome be worth the effort? The margin for error allowed by our official instructions was quite small, but so was Mr. Short’s net VAT liability as declared on his returns and I had seen nothing to indicate that a more accurate reconstruction of his records would produce a significantly different result. A final thought that crossed my mind was that if the Department’s theoretical timetable could be achieved, which seemed unlikely, it would be at least three years before Mr. Short was even considered for a further visit and by then I might well have found my way into a completely different job, as far removed as possible from anything to do with VAT.

“Mrs. Short makes an excellent cup of coffee” I said, rising to my feet. “Thank you for your time this morning. I think I can call it a day here and let you get on with your round.” I gathered up my notebook and papers and prepared to leave.

“Looks like a nice day” said Mr. Short conversationally “I might give the new van a wash later.”
I paused, resting my briefcase on the table. “New van?” I enquired.
“Yes. Some idiot driving a big truck crashed into the old one while it was parked at the side of the road; fortunately I wasn’t in it at the time. I’d been using it for a good few years so, of course, it was a write-off.”
“Have you claimed back VAT on the new one?” I asked; I was sure he hadn’t.
“Can we do that? I thought it wasn’t allowed.”
“Cars aren’t deductible” I explained “but a van for business use… Can you show me the invoice?”
Once more the dresser drawer was opened, and out came a proper printed invoice from one of the commercial vehicle dealers in the town. “There’s a lot of VAT on this” I pointed out “and you’re entitled to reclaim it.” The tax amount was a good ten times more than the milkman would normally have claimed on any of his monthly returns.
Mr. Short looked at the invoice. “Well I never…” he said. “I’ll be doing the next return at the weekend; I’ll be sure to include it. Thanks for telling me that.”

“No problem” I called out as I walked quickly out through the door and then, more quietly and to myself, “it’s just one example of the strange magic of VAT.”


A ghost story, sort of; the characters, setting and events are all, of course, fictitious, but anyone who worked in a certain UK revenue department during the last two decades or so of its existence may experience a sense of déjà vu.

“Oh, excuse me,” I said. “I didn’t expect to find anyone else here.”

I had noticed him sitting at one of the farther desks, studying some papers in an old cardboard box file. He showed no sign of having seen me, so I felt rather stupid, like someone who has just realised that they are talking to themselves, out loud.

“Well,” I thought, “I shouldn’t be here either, so if he’s not bothered..,” but I continued to stare. There was something not quite right about the scene, and I couldn’t immediately put my finger on it. The lights weren’t working, of course, as the building had been closed for several days, but it wasn’t just the slightly gloomy atmosphere that was troubling me.

The presence of the stranger was my second surprise that evening. The first had been a pleasant one; I had been fairly certain that the code for the main door lock would have been changed by now, but the management must have overlooked this obvious security measure and the last series of digits that I could remember using still worked like a charm. We had been required to vacate the premises within five days, following the discovery of asbestos in the building; perhaps it was inevitable that one or two details had been overlooked in the rush to evacuate the staff, remove all the confidential paperwork and take out the more expensive office equipment before the deadline. Only the furniture remained; chairs, desks and cupboards, including the set of drawers in which I thought I must have left my fountain pen. I hadn’t used that pen for many years, but it had some sentimental value as it had been awarded to me at school ‘for excellent work’, and I had decided to return and search for it if possible.

I looked around the floor. My team had occupied part of one of the larger open-plan areas and, in the absence of colleagues, pot plants and the trivial ornaments people used to personalise their workspaces, I had to count the rows to work out where my old desk had been. I thought I was unlikely to disturb the other visitor, who still seemed to be absorbed in his own mysterious task; he was sat well away from the route I had to follow across the room. While I was making my way between the empty desks and chairs I felt for the torch in my pocket, thinking that I might need it when the daylight had faded a little more.

Once I had reached my old desk, it was easy enough to pick out and open the particular drawer in which I hoped to find my missing pen. However, there was no sign of it there and I started looking in the other drawers and cupboards nearby. Only a few were locked and, in any case, after removing the contents, we had left the redundant keys behind in their locks. I soon realised that I wasn’t going to find the pen but, frustrated, I carried on for several minutes, rather noisily pulling and pushing drawers and flinging cupboard doors open and shut.

Then I remembered my silent companion and, feeling more than a little embarrassed, I looked again in his direction, certain that my careless clatter must have upset his concentration.

“Sorry!” I called out, “I forgot you were there.”

I waited for a response, but there was none. He quietly finished looking at some document and placed it carefully on top of the pile that was accumulating in a tray at the corner of his desk. Then he pulled out another sheet, which he laid on the inside of the box file’s open lid to read in turn. It would soon be too dark to read, so perhaps, I thought, he was determined to get through the contents of the file before the feeble light from the windows gave out completely.

I may have actually jumped, physically, when I suddenly realised what was so odd about this apparition. It was not simply that, in spite of my unexpected arrival and the noise I was making, the man had taken no notice of me. The drawers and cupboards I had been searching were all empty, of course. All our business papers had been taken away when we abandoned the building; even the stock of scrap paper had been carefully removed, as a fire precaution. So where had this man found a full box file, and what was he reading?

Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to take a closer look.

I approached my silent companion along the bank of desks at which he was sitting. I walked towards him a little carelessly so that I would make some small noises, brushing against obstacles and scuffing my feet, not wishing to take him by surprise. As I got nearer, I saw that he was wearing a long, old-fashioned macintosh and had laid a pair of smart leather gloves on the desk next to the box file. I couldn’t see his face clearly in the dim light but I had the impression that he was a late middle-aged man, going bald; he was wearing a pair of wire-framed spectacles. It struck me that there was actually something familiar about him; the coat, the way he sat, and those gloves and glasses all seemed to be reminding me of someone I had met before.

I stood for a moment just behind his right shoulder. He still showed no sign of having noticed me, and the thought crossed my mind that he might be deaf. As there was a gap between his desk and the next one to his left, I decided to make my way round and face him directly from the front. He continued to look down at his papers, but now that I had a better view of his face, sudden recognition came over me.

“Tommy!” I said, “Tommy Elliott isn’t it? But I thought you…” Somehow I managed to stifle the words “…must be dead” that were on the tip of my tongue. Tommy had retired at least ten, no at least fifteen years earlier, but here he was, looking no older than I remembered him and still, I thought, wearing the same mac and using the same gloves as had been his usual winter style of dress back in those days.

It might have been my imagination, but Tommy did seem to respond to the sound of my voice. He looked up briefly and a faint trace of a smile marked his face for a moment. Then he was looking down again. He put all of his papers back into the box file but left it open. He glanced up again, and seemed to look through me rather than at me; with his elbow resting on the desk, his right hand pointed rather awkwardly at the topmost document in front of him. I took this gesture as an unspoken invitation to examine the contents of the box myself. As it would have been difficult to do this from where I was standing and it seemed rude to pull the collection away from his hands, I returned to his side of the desk and peered over his shoulder. This was not a comfortable position for reading.

“It’s getting dark,” I said. “Would you mind if I took this somewhere more convenient?” Tommy said nothing but he sat back in his chair and dropped his hands into his lap. I leaned over him, picked up the box file and moved back to the other side of the desk. There I pulled up a chair, retrieved the torch from my pocket and switched it on so that I could read more easily.

I soon realised that I was looking at a file of all kinds of personnel documentation relating to Tommy’s former career. Much of it was of a familiar kind; there were copies of sickness absence certificates, several of them reporting periods of depression, and annual appraisal reports bearing comments phrased in the usual management style (best described as ‘damning with faint praise’). The lack of indexing and the mixed nature of the papers suggested to me that this was Tommy’s own record of his time in the Department, not an official compilation.

“Weird,” I thought, “truly weird; how did he know it would still be here? Or did he have it at home and come here with it today because he heard that the office had been closed?” I was not sure in my mind which line of thought was more absurd.

Assuming that Tommy would not have been scrutinising this routine stuff in any detail, I made rapid progress down through the contents of the box, just glancing at most of the individual items. After all, this was really none of my business, although Tommy, sat silently facing me, had not made any move to stop me. I paused, however, when I came to a group of typed letters held together with a paper clip, and began to read the first. Below Tommy’s office address and a date from my earlier years in the Department I read:

‘Dear Sirs
I note that, following the recent annual reviews, both of my colleagues have been offered promotion opportunities but, as usual, I have not…’

“Hmm, we’ve all been there, Tommy”, I thought, but I remembered that he had spent many years stubbornly working in a post that nobody else wanted, and he seemed to have been taken very much for granted by the office hierarchy. There were one or two further, similar letters, apparently written at different dates; I began to read through them with a sympathetic eye.

‘…I was shocked to discover that Mr. Dale has been selected for promotion. You are surely aware that he has been working part-time, in effect, for most of the past year as he slips off during the afternoons to conduct an affair…’

Oh yes, I remembered Dale. It was unlikely that the management had been ignorant of the tangle in his private life; it was possible that he had been promoted, at least partly, to give him a chance to sort himself out, but I could see why Tommy would have been upset. In the event, Dale had resolved matters by setting up home with the girlfriend and had, presumably, used his higher salary in his new grade to provide support for his abandoned wife and children. Whether he had reverted to working his proper hours, I did not know.

‘…and since Mr. Williams left us to take up his new position it has fallen to me to sort out the mess he had created in several cases…’

I could remember Williams too; a nice fellow, but famously incompetent. I couldn’t think of any reason why he should have been promoted ahead of Tommy Elliott, except that he had already been working for the Department before the amalgamation with our sister organisation. For years afterwards the promotion system had mysteriously continued to favour those who had been around in ‘the old days’, even if they had been insignificant juniors at the time.

It would have taken a braver man than Tommy Elliott to actually send letters like these to the rigid, unsympathetic senior managers that ran the organisation, so it was not a surprise to see that each had a handwritten footnote: ‘Not sent, T.E.’; each, that is, except the last, which was headed ‘Letter of Resignation’ and very clearly marked ‘Sent!’ It occurred to me that Tommy had retired a few years before the normal age limit at the time; I had been under the impression that he might have been able to leave on health grounds, or under a voluntary redundancy package. I leant an elbow on the desk so that I could hold the torch steadily in my hand and read Tommy’s final letter addressed to the Departmental Commissioners.

‘Dear Sirs…

…I have now spent more than three decades of my life working under your management. I came to you with qualifications that seemed relevant to your needs, but you have never shown the slightest interest in making use of them. I soon realised that I would struggle to achieve any career progression against the competition from colleagues who were favoured by their previous experience in an older departmental structure, and I repeatedly requested permission to transfer to another department, where I might have had more opportunities, but these requests were always denied. Apparently you have a policy of not allowing ‘transfers out’, regardless of circumstances, a policy which nobody seems able to justify or explain.
As the years have passed, I have suffered periodic bouts of severe depression and relentless frustration; I have seen reckless misbehaviour and incredible incompetence rewarded by promotion while my own achievements and sustained efforts on your behalf have been dismissed as ‘just doing your job’.
Quite recently, as you should already know, I was targeted by a bullying manager who had already driven two other people to resign. It was fortunate that I managed to weather that particular storm and I accept that the manager was found to have been at fault, but I find it completely unacceptable that she was rapidly given further promotion as a means of removing her from direct staff management responsibilities, particularly as, in contrast, I was left to recover my health and self-confidence without assistance and without even a hint of any compensation.
Now that I have (and intend to take) an opportunity to escape from your grossly mismanaged organisation, perhaps none of this bad experience matters any more. I will meekly accept the pension that you cannot legally avoid paying me; I am realistic enough to know that, although you have drastically undervalued my service and by any reasonable moral standard owe me many hundreds of thousands of pounds in recompense for your continual mistreatment, it would be both exhausting and fruitless to take legal action against you. However, I do feel entitled to ask you for just one, simple thing in acknowledgement of your failure to recognise and reward my potential and my actual contribution to the work of the Department: an apology…’

An apology; so that was what he had been hoping to find.

I had been absorbed in my task and unaware of anything outside the small circle of light cast by my torch. It came as a shock when I looked up and saw an empty desk in front of me; Tommy Elliott in his mac and spectacles, his gloves, the box file and its other contents had disappeared. All that was left in sight, and in my custody, was Tommy’s resignation letter. I glanced down again to see his last words:

“…I await your reply. Injustice can never be forgotten.”

I switched off my faltering torch and sat alone in the darkness for a few moments. Then I picked up the letter, stood, and made my way, a little hesitantly, out into the night.