Humorous Exchanges With The Tax Man

WHAT scintillating conversational tactics bureaucrats do use. ''Could we start, perhaps,'' he said, ''by my asking you what your National Insurance number might be?''

I shifted the telephone wire slightly in order to read my National Insurance number off the top of the letter I had just received from the man's office.

''Phew!'' he said.

Phew? I had never thought of a tax man saying ''Phew!'' even if I had phoned him without warning.

''Was I too fast?'' I said.

''No, no,'' he said in his impeccable, consonantly emphatic Edinburgh accent. ''I kept up.''

''A two-finger man, eh?'' (He couldn't see me smiling.)

''A no-finger man,'' he admitted.

''Well,'' I said, ''we do expect you people in the Inland Revenue to move fast, you know.''

I overheard what I had just said and thought: Why is this representative of the Tax Office bringing out the cheek in me? Maybe it is because he sounds, after all, suspiciously like a human, for a bureaucrat. And then I heard myself add: ''Now, there's a laugh! Tax People move fast!'' And then, to my amazement, I ... well, I guffawed.

I know history is a bore, but the fact is that my encounters with the tax man have not, in the past, been exactly productive. More deductive, really. He has not been good to me. If you owe him something, he is attentive and insistent. If he owes you something, well, then he is ... on sabbatical, or at a month-long seminar, or ''not at his desk just now, I'm sorry.''

On this occasion, it was the last. Instead of the man who had written to me asking for precise dates of heating and lighting bills (which may well incur a refund), here I was talking to his ''colleague'' who was happy to help, but explained that he was not really my individual Inland Revenue person.

He was not at all put out by my ribald laughter, but simply advised: ''Now, now, settle down!'' as if quieting a small boy.

Funny creatures, bureaucrats. If I then expected him to talk about tax matters (they do not much interest me either), I was disappointed. He just felt it would be pleasant, since it was Monday and raining, to have an affable chat or at least an exchange of witticisms or philosophical observations.

''I should tell you,'' he went on, ''that we do have a young lady here who moves over the keyboard as if she had 17 fingers....''

I thought perhaps it was my role to bring him back to the subject. ''The difficulty,'' I said, ''is that the relevant bills for electricity, gas, and coal.... ''

''Coal?'' he intervened. ''How very quaint!''

''It does look good,'' I explain-ed, ''glowing away in the grate.''

''You could use peat. You can buy it at petrol stations. All prepared.''

''Does it burn well?''

''It doesn't burn at all. It doesn't give out heat. No smoke, no flame, no glow. It doesn't do anything. It just sits there doing nothing at all. But it is cheap.''

''Sounds perfect,'' I said, in a slightly baffled voice.

''Well, now,'' he said with a sigh, ''your problem is that your bills come in in May, and you do not know which ones to include in your tax claim for the relevant year, am I correct?''

''Precisely.'' Maybe now we were getting somewhere.

He emitted an additional tiny sigh. ''I am in a difficult situation,'' he murmured. ''Since I am not the person who has to do with your affairs, I cannot very well say to you that I think my colleague is straining at gnats and swallowing whatever it is and so forth.... Nor can I say to him (with my hand over the mouthpiece, naturally) that he is not only accusing you of inexactitude, or to put it in Anglo-Saxon, cheating, but treating you as a ridiculous old git when clearly, of course, you are no such thing.

''But I may venture to believe -- since this is the first year you have put in a claim of this kind -- that my colleague may be just thinking everything should start out on a right footing. He is, perhaps, saying, 'Let's get Mr. Andreae on a short lead, rein him in a bit, pull him to heel, and tell him to 'Sit!' So ... Sit!''

''Well, I am already sitting,'' I said. ''But not like a spaniel. More of a slouch.''

Clearly he had said all he felt like saying about tax. It was the question of sitting that now absorbed him.

''Do you know,'' he said, ''we were recently handed one of those psycho-babble documents designed to improve the performance of poor long-suffering bureaucrats like ourselves and'' (his voice grew densely ironic) ''it stated that in order to 'maximize the effectiveness' of your telephone manner, you should be -- listen to this -- 'in a standing position!' I ask you!''

Then both of us -- tax collector and tax- payer, in a show of unprecedented togetherness, guffawed. We guffawed at the manifest absurdity of a world run by behavioral theorists and the like. Why do we allow them to make their daft suggestions, and actually pay them for propounding them?

I almost began to like this tax person. It seemed we were both on the right side of the world. After all, it was not his fault he was a tax man....

He went on guffawing so ebulliently that I fancy the muffled crash, followed by more distant laughter, might have been his office chair tipping over backward. I do not think this was a clever tactic to avoid refunding tax. But it was, certainly, a quite effective way of bringing our chat to a close.

I put the phone down. All-told, the call had not, after all, been quite the taxing experience I had expected.

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