January 31 looms. No, of course I haven't finished my tax return yet. We all know tax is like death, even though, unlike death, it provides hospitals and schools and so on, but frankly the annual cloud it produces does nothing for harmonious domestic living. Currently, the atmosphere at Millard Towers is somewhat taut, and will be until January 31. Every night, the following conversation:
Mr Millard (over washing-up, because the kitchen electrics are still buggered): "Have you done your tax return yet, my dove?"
RM: "Oh, God! Don't think so. Don't ask me again. I'll make a start on it as soon as this pan of water boils." (No kettle, for same reason.)
MM (who naturally does his tax return himself): "Well, if you don't, Richard (long-suffering accountant) won't get your details in time, will he?"
Silence. The pan, finally, boils.
But there is a slew of problems.
Problem No 1. Fishing all your receipts, payslips, statements out from the bottom of your desk to send to Richard. Then you find some more in your wardrobe. And everywhere else in the house.
Problem No 2. Translating them. Deciphering some faintly printed receipt for £35.60. What is this for? A taxi fare of £14 to God-knows-where at some point in 2005? A dry-cleaning bill? Something unintelligible from Ryman? It's like playing a giant version of Pelmanism for things last handled in 2005. Why can't the Inland Revenue be a bit snappier? Having such a hiatus between earning money and paying tax on it is just... cruel.
My accountant, who keeps all his receipts alphabetically filed, e-mails me nicely to ask if I can account for Payments No 453 and 456, £230 and £450. The politeness of his manner, and his confidence in my book-keeping almost make me laugh. I can barely remember what I bought last week (apart from lip salve, some bubble bath and a bag of dried apricots).
But it must be done, so I sit up all night in a ribbed DKNY lounge suit (Figleaf.com, but bought at midnight in the online sale which really therefore doesn't count as shopping), trying to stack tiny bits of paper in piles and optimistically labelling them "Work" "Taxis" and "Stationery". Can I have a pile called "Coiffure"? It's a moot point, as Cherie Blair must know.
Problem No 3. When you are applying for a mortgage, or some form of juicy loan, you desperately try to amass what looks like a small fortune under your name, so the lender will think you are a Good Investment Possibility. Whereas, when it comes to tax time, you sort of hope that the same amount looks rather small after all (in fact, tiny), so the taxman will have pity on you.
The economically minded Thrift Queen Laura has already done her return. Weeks ago, herself, and online, which means that she stands to win £100. Whereas I and Spendthrift Janie are taking it so close to the line that we will probably be fined £100 for lateness.
When I was at the BBC, all this was out of one's hands. You paid your tax at source, and that was it. No receipt memory game, no January panic. The only financial game at TV Centre was with BBC Expenses, a bottomless pit against which J Ross's £17m looks as nothing. Taxis, mobile phones; it all went merrily off to Expenses. One year, I even tried (with rare failure) to claim for a leather handbag, bought to hang elegantly on my arm in Cannes.
The joke is that everyone at the BBC considers they are on the breadline. I get regular responses to my advert in the BBC in-house paper, offering weekends at my Paris love nest. "Could I possibly have a discount?" they write. "After all, I am an impoverished BBC producer/correspondent/newsreader." Here I think the confusion lies with the BBC ethos. The programmes might well be public service. But this does not make the average BBC producer into a public servant.
I give Spendthrift Janie (definitely not a public servant since she is married to someone at Kleinwort Benson) a ring. "Have you done your tax return yet?" I quaver. She screams at me with laughter. I open another e-mail from the patient Richard. "Does your forthcoming package include statements on account no 6678493, sheet no 36 (May 05-April 2006)?" What? We're dealing with 2006 as well?