Certified Letter

Here’s a short autobiographical story by Patrick. The file is dated 12 March 2014.

In our little village here in the mountains, there is a post office still. There are two employees, one for sorting incoming mail and preparing outgoing mail, and one for attending customers, who are few. The office is open only in the morning from eight o’clock until ten-thirty, except Saturday when they stay open until eleven.

After they close, both employees begin the rounds delivering the mail. If there is a certified letter or a package that won’t fit in your mailbox, they leave a yellow notice showing in the slot, half in half out of the box. I suppose that is because nowadays when almost everyone has e-mail there is so seldom any mail you might not check.

Of course if you receive such a notice you must get to the post office the next morning, before ten-thirty if it’s a week day, or eleven if it’s Saturday. No mail is delivered on Saturday, which is why they stay open that extra half an hour.

Yesterday when I returned from shopping down in the capital and treating myself to a great lunch, there was one of the yellow notifications stuffed into my buzón. The check mark indicated that a certificado was awaiting me, from an illegible sender. I never like certificados. They nearly always bear bad news of one sort or another. Still, what can you do except go and sign for it.

Nevertheless, since I needed to pick up some medication from the pharmacy in the village, I decided to take the document with me. When the pharmacist had given me various prescriptions, mostly for blood pressure, cholesterol, and related complaints, plus some capsules designed to keep the stomach from objecting to the other pills, I showed her the paper from the post office.

“Can you read what this says? I can’t make it out.”

She settled her spectacles on her nose and took one look.

“Uy, uy uy.” She looked at me with pity and removed her glasses. “It’s from the Agéncia tributária.”

In English that’s the Revenue Agency, or the dreaded IRS.

“I hope it is nothing very grave,” she had that tragic look that Spaniards put on when they are glad that whatever it is that is happening is not happening to them. I suppose you could call it sympathy.

I went home a bit glum with this news. My recent experience with the tax people was what might be termed catastrophic. When my partner – as we say these days – died after we had twentynine years together, she left everything to me. Actually the house was in both names, so we thought that was settled. But since we were not married, the Revenue Agency insisted I pay inheritance tax on her half. Not as a relative, which would have been practically nothing, but as if I were a stranger and this was a gift. The taxes were more than we originally paid for the house.

To make it short, the only way to come up with that sum of money was to sell the house.

Well, okay. I didn’t relish the thought of living there without the missing person, anyway.

I sold the house, paid the inheritance tax plus five years of interest, since it took that long to find the buyer, paid the lawyer, and gave a finder’s fee to the guy who bought me the new owner. Got rid of most of the furniture, rented an apartment in another village. Two years have passed since then. I am just getting used to living on my own, learning to cook pretty well, fully retired from work and most obligations.

I got home and poured myself a stiff Jameson’s, neat. What could they want now? It is still two months until time to make this year’s tax return. In any case, my gestor is the one who reminds me to come in and file the return. Thinking of him, I am suddenly in a cold sweat. What did he say when we made the declaration last year when I had to declare the sale of the house?

“If the house is your main residence, and you are over sixty-five, you do not have to pay capital gains.” He pushed his glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. He turned the pencil end over end. I waited. “But should they decide the house was a commercial property, then maybe there will be repercussions.”

“Commercial? Repercussions?”

He stopped fiddling with the pencil, point down. “We have been declaring a minimum income from rentals over the years. If somebody looks closely…they could say it’s a commercial property.”

Now I swallowed another slug of whiskey. There’s a saying in Spain something like Things of the palace go slow. Maybe it took them this long to check out my tax return? After all, it had taken them two and a half years to lay into me after the will was probated. Ten days more, and they would not have been able to collect the inheritance tax.

It made no sense to jump to conclusions. I would just have to wait until tomorrow and pick up the certified letter. Why work myself up to a nervous pitch? Forget it. Make some supper. Have a glass of wine. Read a little. Relax.

Easier said than done.

With the second glass of wine, I remembered that Alfredo had called me a few days back.

“I can’t find the number of your bank account. Could you send it to me?” Alfredo took over our music festival when I couldn’t take it any more. Thirty years was enough, and without the missing person, it was no longer fun. Alfredo had just recently paid the last installment on the Steinway grand, the only asset that belonged to the festival, and in which I had a large personal investment.

Now Alfredo is not always perfectly transparent in his dealings with musicians and the tax people. That’s not to say he defrauds anyone, but there is a lot of stretching of figures going on. In my rising state of paranoia it just occurred to me that if he is investigated, I might be investigated.

He probably has had to report to hacienda the money that has gone through his account, including what he gave me for the Steinway.

Over a couple of years, while the transition was taking place from me to him, we both had bank accounts in the name of the tax-free music association. My account I have kept open, both to receive the Steinway payments from him, and to receive payments for my publications of musical scores.

This endeavor I call Soundpost Publications, and is covered in the statutes of the musical association. Since what I publish is music by neglected, nearly unknown composers, Soundpost is to all intents and purposes non profit. I have been publishing these things from manuscripts – mainly to be able to hear them live in my festival – for about fifteen years. In that time perhaps I have taken in ten thousand euros. Maybe that comes to one euro per hour of work. But, like the festival, it has been a labor of love and devotion.

I’m not quite sure if the tax people would see it like that.

I imagine explaining to them. “The people who buy this music are mostly librarians. They work for universities around the world. They are adding to the cultural patrimony of the world.”

I could go on to say that the money I receive from them is probably tax money in the first place. I pour myself an after dinner whiskey and gnaw a little longer at that miserable thought.

The world is in dire straits from Gibraltar to the Ukraine, providing a kind of horror show for whoever is watching the evening news. Usually I turn off the sound so I can skip the spin announcers are putting on street violence in this or that country. But tonight I can’t seem to stop worrying at my own small concerns,

What if the tax inspectors think I have been trying to ship my little bit of capital out of the country? I sent each of my four children a gift, just to make sure that they get something from me in case when I bite the dust the inheritance tax blows it all away.

When what is called the Crisis hit, I was told to spread whatever money I had among several banks. What if the inspectors have discovered that, and suspect me of trying to hide my very modest wealth?

Sleep was nearly impossible. First I was afraid I wouldn’t awake to get to the post office before they closed, so I set the alarm. Then I twisted and turned, reviewing all the nightmarish history with the will and testament. I had found it quite by accident in among the cook books where she had hidden it ten years before she died. Why? I’m still not sure. It was handwritten, signed and dated but not witnessed Several friends had to appear before the authorities to swear it was her handwriting. Three years passed. Complications flourished, solutions were scarce and contradictory.

I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling beams illuminated by streetlights outside my window. I counted the knots and concentric rings in the pine wood. The church bell rang one o’clock, then two o’clock. Would I never sleep?

I must have, for the alarm awakened me with plenty of time to shower, dress, have coffee and then walk the cobblestones to pick up the dreaded certified letter.

A lovely morning. The sun was up over the mountain, lighting the green ceramic tiles above the cartuja, made famous by Chopin’s brief visit a century and a half ago.

Down the valley a flock of sheep grazed under a plum tree, blooming alone among the dry weeds of an abandoned terrace below the village. The day’s regiments of tourists had not yet besieged us. Pigeons fled the belfry when the bell rang ten o’clock. A more bucolic scene would be hard to imagine.

If only the mind could imitate the landscape. But the tempestuous imaginings of yesterday and last night stirred the scene to resemble Van Gogh’s countryside with crows. Reluctantly I pulled open the door of Correus.

Two customers were ahead of me. One was preparing a package for mailing. A young woman dressed in traditional costume waited impatiently, perhaps fearful she would be late for for dancing for the tourists.

My turn came with Esperanza – what other name should a postmistress have? – and she produced the letter, tore the receipt off the back and asked me to sign. I resisted a last impulse to refuse the letter and wait to see what would happen. Unopened, I carried it into the street and sought a bench where I sat staring at the return address. Agencia Tributaria, with that street address so familiar from months of negotiating the inheritance tax five years ago. I could see in my mind’s eye the offices, each desk piled with folders of pending suits, and behind them stern faces inured to hostilities of every kind.

The church bell rang the half hour. Nothing for it but to open the missive and face the music.

I did that.

At first I failed to comprehend what was before my very eyes. I had until the twenty-second of the month to pay up. That was ten days from now. The amount is what stunned me. I could hardly believe it.

Was I reading it right? In Spain a comma is used in numbers where in America we would put a decimal point. So 181,49 euros, at first glance looks like one hundred eighty-one thousand euros.

Then I looked at what this sum referred to: One year’s garbage collection. So suddenly did I jump up from the bench a German couple happening by flinched away from me.

What joy! One hundred eighty-one euros and forty-nine cents. A pittance. I ran, if such hurried slowness by an eighty year old man could be so described, to arrive at my bank smiling and out of breath.

“Never saw anyone so happy to pay his taxes,” said Alfonso. He watched with raised eyebrows as I waved the receipt at him and fairly scampered across the street to treat myself to a double strength cafe con leche. It is a day to celebrate and I don’t want to fall asleep before writing this down.