The is a P.S. to my last post, which was on bureaucracy and trying to pay the tax on my car. Just after I posted it, I gathered up every vaguely relevant piece of paper I could get my paws on and presented myself at the post office, hoping to convince an actual human being that my car was real.
For anyone who doesn’t live in the U.K., I should explain: The post office isn’t just a post office. And it’s capitalized—the Post Office. Sorry. I’m just a lower-case sort of person. The Post Office is also a bank and a place to pay some of your bills and some of your taxes. In a village, it’s not a bad place to get gossip, two onions, and a container of milk, because it’s also a small store. So going to the Post Office wasn’t a measure of how far around the bend I’d gone but (at least in my mind) a clever attempt to outwit computerized insanity.
But I had to go to a larger, non-onion, non-gossip Post Office, because our local sub-Post Office can’t handle car taxes anymore. I’m sure that makes sense to someone and I doubt it would to me if they explained it.
I talked with a very nice woman, who scanned my eleven-digit number, told me—with just the slightest air of panic, as if I might get dangerous any moment—that she didn’t need the rest of the papers I was toting, and began the process of registering my car.
I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t tell her the tale about how the computer wouldn’t recognize my car, but it took less than a minute before the words were out of my mouth. You know how that works. I know you do. She didn’t refuse to go any further, though. She laughed. Maybe that was the point where she decided I was safe to have around.
Or at least entertaining. There was no one on line behind me.
She called someone else over, and they looked at the screen together.
“When does your tax run out?” she asked.
“On the twelfth.”
I’ll summarize, because the conversation was long and I don’t remember most of it anyway: Car taxes can’t run out on the twelfth. They run out at the end of the month. Any month. Whatever month. If I saw a twelve on the disc, it must run out in December.
I was fairly sure it didn’t, but—in that strange way that you can believe two opposing things at once—I also believed it must. Otherwise how did twelve come into the conversation?
Have I mentioned that there’s nothing involving numbers that I can’t screw up?
I could, she told me, go ahead and pay the tax, but if there was an overlap I’d be paying double for those months. For a fleeting moment, the idea appealed to me. It would be done. Even if I paid double for eleven months, I wouldn’t have to think about it again until—well, whatever September plus eleven comes to.
Or twelve. Wouldn’t that be twelve?
I asked her something—I can’t remember what—that she could only answer if the second person came back from doing whatever he was doing, which involved another window, Canadian dollars, U.S. dollars, and time.
We waited. She looked at her screen. A line was building up behind me.
“It’s not showing up as expired,” she said.
I think she told me that in a couple of different ways before I understood: At the very least, the car’s okay until the end of this month. It hasn’t expired. It can’t expire on the twelfth.
“They’ll send you a letter,” she said.
“They still do that?”
She said they do. I’m not sure I believe her, but it would be very sensible if she turned out to be right.
“Why don’t I wait, then?” I said.
She handed me back the one bit of paper she’d actually needed and I moved aside to fit it back into my folder, thanking her as I went. Recalcitrant bits of paper were trying to escape and make their way back to her window, but I wrestled them down, then turned to everyone still in line and apologized for holding them up. It was—for reasons I can’t define—a very un-British moment and I had an odd glimpse of myself as a street entertainer. I had to stop myself from taking a bow.
No one had yet moved up to the window I’d vacated. They were waiting.
“Can I help who’s next?” she said.
I finally got to my car and looked at my tax disc. They’d shown me how to read it, so it almost made sense this time. It expires at the end of September. There isn’t a twelve to be seen.