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.”

“Underpinning?”

“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

“Now?”

“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.

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