More in our series following one man’s sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and oft-times harrowing journey through a 20-odd-year career in arboriculture.

ONE evening in the summer of 2001 I came home tired from a difficult day to an unpleasant surprise. We had been cutting hundreds of yards of hornbeam hedges, Badger and I, which I had planted myself as part of a landscaping scheme several years previously and it was hard work. The customer, a Mr Joyce (who I think had a title as well), could be pedantic and fussy, but was usually alright. The main problem, apart from being a bit uptight about the quality of the work, was that he was a bit thrifty. Every year I tried to increase the quote slightly, by five per cent or so, to which he begrudgingly agreed, but always with a condition.

“I accept the quote, but if you have time, can you …” He would then go on to add several other hedges to the list, but only if we finished in good time. Because of this, he always wanted us to arrive early and then work flat out, pretending to help by picking up piles of clippings in his stupid tractor. But not raking any of it up, or even pitchforking it into the trailer himself.

Consequently, it became easier to do the work quickly and do a small part of the extras, rather than dallying and facing his irritation if we so much as stopped for a drink. This came to a head a few years later with a small incident that annoyed me so much I lost interest and consequently the contract to someone else.

Meanwhile, back at home I opened the post. I was very naïve back then, so the brown envelope marked Her Majesty’s Tax Office (or whatever it was called in that year) didn’t alarm me too much, not even when I opened it and read the few typed paragraphs.

Tales from the Trees: Help

“Dear Mr Oliver,” it read, politely enough. “It is time now to carry out an investigation into your tax return.” I might not have nailed the exact wording, but you get the gist of it. I was going to be investigated. At first, I didn’t realise the enormity of what the letter was getting at, assuming it to be just another bit of standard bureaucracy from the government.

“What is it?” asked Winnie, noticing my intense scrutiny of the wording. I explained, as best I could, because I didn’t really know myself. Eventually the penny dropped, but even at this point I wasn’t worried, for one very simple reason.

I had been absolutely honest in all my dealings, completely scrupulous and followed the rules exactly, keeping records, using an accountant, making declarations, etc. Except for one small mistake …

Ah, here we go, I can hear you all thinking, the fellow has cheated the system and been caught, so he is writing a tale to exonerate himself and excuse his malpractice. Well, let me tell the story of what happened over those next few months and see what you make of it. I’ll try to add a touch of humour, but it might be difficult.

My wife rang the accountant, who gave us our first real clue as to what we were about to embark upon. “Oh dear,” she said. That isn’t something you want to hear, particularly from your financial helpers, so I pressed her about what was going to happen. “Unfortunately, you haven’t got any tax investigation insurance, have you?” I remembered vaguely that she had suggested such, but hadn’t taken her up on the offer. Every penny counted back then.

“Is that bad?” I asked, feeling that it might be. She went on to explain the situation, talking of paperwork, records, questions, follow-up questions and, importantly, time.

I was very soon to discover just how awful this was going to be, but tried to be upbeat. “Well, they won’t find anything wrong. I’ve been very diligent.”

I believed it too, but the accountant just said, “Hmmmm …” Ominously, I suppose.

The next few months were hard work: cutting trees, mowing, killing squirrels and every now and again spending whole evenings collating paper files and answering an ever-increasing number of questions from the tax man. But after a while, all went quiet for a week or so.

I sort of forgot about it. In the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t over, but I was still more worried about the accountant’s final invoice than anything else to do with the investigation. She had put in a lot of time herself.

Then another letter arrived, thanking me for the information and inviting me to a formal interview, though I don’t know whether ‘inviting’ is the correct term. The meeting was going to happen whether I liked it or not, so I agreed it should happen at the accountant’s office in a fortnight’s time, and went about my normal business, still with not too much anxiety. I was innocent, after all – or at least I thought I was.

Two weeks later, I arrived at the office and was shown through to the private room of my accountant where, for the first time, I met the investigator. I think I’ll call her X for the purposes of this story. Actually, Y might have been more appropriate, because that is what I was thinking: why me?

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: Not tree surgery

X said ‘good morning’ and offered me coffee (which I thought was a bit rich, it wasn’t even her office!), but I declined. I started to have an inkling that something very unpleasant was about to happen; a feeling that became stronger when she read out a very formal statement. Again, I don’t remember it word for word, but it sounded more like a police caution than a normal introduction to proceedings.

Then came the questions. “When did you do this job? How did that customer pay? Were there any materials left over? How much did you charge?”

I managed to answer most of it, though it was dated about two years prior to that time. There was a sticky bit about using paving slabs left over from a patio job in my own garden, but I explained (truthfully) that it was to make a solid surface to unload my ride-on mower. X just nodded at this, and I started to really dislike her.

The accountant didn’t say much. I was sort of on my own because only I could know the answers to most of it. After a couple of hours, the investigator absolutely nailed me.

“Do you ever buy stuff for your home and claim it as a business expense?” I assumed the patio slabs had reared their ugly head again, but I answered ‘no’, because I had explained that already. Then, she totally threw me with her next remark. “I will ask that question again, please think very carefully before you answer.” She made another note in her horrid little notebook and I was suddenly aware of a feeling of impending disaster, though I still felt pretty innocent.

I answered in the negative the second time, and the third, but by now I knew that there was about to be a moment of truth.

“Tell me, Mr Oliver, do you use chickens in your normal work activities?”

I was slightly flummoxed by this, briefly imagining myself ordering a Buff Orpington to reduce a hedge, or a Rhode Island Red driving the Land Rover.

“Nooooo …” I said, trying to make the word really long so I had time to try and understand what she was getting at.

“Well,” she almost shouted, beside herself with joy. “How do you explain this?”

The investigator, who I definitely didn’t like by now, handed me a receipt, which I read, with a horrible sick feeling in my stomach. At last I knew what she was getting at. I looked down at the invoice from a local country store. It listed rakes, secateurs and other tree-type consumables but there, at the bottom: poultry feed, £3.

I actually remembered the occasion, when reminded. I’d stopped off at the store to re-equip various items, decided to save a trip and grab a bag of layers pellets and then, my catastrophic error, forgotten to account for it in the end-of-year expenses claim.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: AKA …

“That’s just chicken feed,” I exclaimed, pleased with my pun, but the tax lady didn’t laugh. In fact, I noticed for the first time that she had her hair in a bun, a brown tweed skirt, hooked nose and malevolent eyes. A shudder went through me  as I was reminded of my French teacher at secondary school.

In my terrified and confused mind, I imagined Miss Tanner had pursued me beyond school, never forgiving me for deliberately scoring only four per cent in a French literacy test in 1977 (actually the lowest score recorded at that time until a fellow called Venables scored half that the following year).

Obviously, this wasn’t the case, but I knew I was now in trouble. Unfortunately, and what really sealed my fate was that I had committed the three-pound fraud twice, though I honestly couldn’t remember the second time. With the two ‘crimes’ proven I was now, in the eyes of X, a criminal.

“You have proven yourself to be dishonest and not answered my questions truthfully,” said X. But she wasn’t done yet, “There is also the question of the patio slabs …”

“But I explained that,” I almost shouted, sounding even more guilty.

“Since you have proven yourself to be a liar, the earlier answers you gave must now have their authenticity questioned. You stated ...” She flipped back through her notebook and quoted me word for word. “You stated that you do not take cash payments?” I’m not sure why she made a question of it as she was looking at the evidence.

“I don’t,” I said, with absolute honesty. I never have. I always need proper money to run my business, not handfuls of useless pound notes. But I already knew I was finished.

“Small businesses do often carry out cash-in-hand jobs,” she stated, laying a trap which I plunged straight into.

“I know they do, BUT NOT ME!” I was pretty furious now, but was about to be incredulous instead.

“Oh?” she asked, in mock surprise. “Which businesses?”

I had been cleverly cornered and it dawned on me that this might be like in the films, where the petty crook turns super grass to save his own skin. I didn’t squeal, though.

The miserable day dragged on for about another hour, the main focus now on how much cash-in-hand work I had done, not ‘if’ but a monetary figure, which X unexpectedly arrived at all on her own. Apparently, this was based on other tree surgeons, percentages and so on, but I recall it being about £6,000, which I, as a villain, could only dispute if I appealed.

I didn’t. I paid back taxes, fines and lost a lot of money, and even had the patio slabs added to my charge sheet – all unjustly, in my opinion, but perhaps you disagree.

The VAT man came a few months after that. Luckily there was no great fraud to discover, but it is quite a fun story that I might tell one day.

In case you were wondering, the reason I stopped the hornbeam hedge contract? Mr Joyce almost ran us over on his tractor as we sat in the sun eating our lunch one year, forcing Badger and I to dive for cover and knocking over the all-important flask of tea into my sandwiches. He apologised and said that he hadn’t seen us, but I doubt that. I think we’d just relaxed for a little bit too long and there were ‘extras’ that needed doing.

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