The letter we received from the Tax Control Department was preprinted. Handwritten had been added a date, a number and the addressee: Kerk van Jezus Christus van de Heiligen der Laatste Dagen. It invited, or rather summoned, “an official representative of the organization” to appear before a duly appointed tax controller. Report to office number 7. Within thirty days, “otherwise the Department will take the necessary measures”.
The space for the reason had been left empty.
I was asked to handle it. At that time – many years ago – I was secretary to the Church’s legal association in Belgium. The reason for the letter? Of course, again some muddle in the mission office. Overdue car taxes? Unpaid real estate levies? Outstanding import duties for Church material? But it could be worse. Was the Tax Department considering an imposition on gifts because some members had applied for a deduction on their tithing? The letter fueled haunted inklings.
A decrepit tax building, breathing dejection. A waiting corridor, long and narrow, lined with exhausted chairs on both sides. Five seats next to every office door.
Office number 7. Three men and a woman were already seated. I took the empty chair, and adopted the posture of culpability that such places bestow.
People passed, hiding their apprehension under a sulky air. When an office door opened to let someone out, the seated crowd gazed insolently at his face to catch a glimpse of the outcome. Across from me, at office number 5, sat two men, ostensibly a businessman and his accountant, perhaps his attorney, holding a thick dossier and several binders. I noticed the businessman’s blue veins throbbing in his temples.
From inside office 7 we could hear voices, rising, quarrelling, then one broke into a pleading tone, punctuated by the crackling sound of an antiquated calculator.
– He sucks, whispered the woman next to me. He’ll get the last cent out of you.
My turn came. I entered into a pungent smell of nicotine and fading paper. The controller sat behind an aged metal desk, stacks of cluttered files on both sides. In front of him, a nearly full ashtray and a grubby thermos next to an equally grubby coffee mug. Plus the heavy mechanical calculator as I had imagined it. Cold and milky light, coming from the opal, acid-etched glass of the window behind him, stiffened the setting.
He was a tall, meager man, around fifty. The low-hanging corners of his mouth exuded both a drained and a defiant expression. The whole face seemed to dissolve towards those corners. Already years ago life must have left his listless eyes.
– Sit down. You have your convocation?
I handed him the letter the Church had received. From an eroded cabinet with rusty sides he pulled a file, amazingly thin and light compared to some of the bulging dossiers. He opened it with a gloomy sigh.
– We never had a case like this.
He paused, staring into the file, slowly reading a cover page, in utter silence. I recognized the tactic to put his opponent off balance. Years of experience had made him master of the game. From dealing day after day with cheaters, swindlers, liars, he had acquired an impudent confidence, fiercely conscious of the power emanating from his humble clerical rank to confront undeserved opulence. But a finger of compassion touched me too, as I realized the desolation of his task. His work was to dispute and to penalize. His calling was to be uncherished.
Finally, from a slit envelop in the file he took a folded paper and handed it to me. The note, handwritten in Dutch and in neat capitals, read:
“Dear Sirs. For several years I have cheated on my taxes. But my life has changed. I have become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I want to make amends for my wrongdoing. Enclosed is 37,800 francs in cash, late interest included.”
The tax controller took a dispassionate sip from his mug.
– It took us time to find an address for your organization. The official domicile has not been updated properly. That must be normalized within thirty days, you understand?
He paused again and lit a cigarette.
– I presume you do not know who this individual could be?
– I have no idea. Besides…
– This individual should have asked for a regularization. There is a form for that. Also, if the Administration determines that this individual has fiscal arrears, he will not be able to claim this irregular disbursement.
An unholy thought crossed my mind: this good brother should have given the 37,800 francs for our struggling fast offerings.
– Anyway, the Administration must acknowledge reception of the sum. It was decided to hand that note to your organization. Please sign here for reception of the receipt.
As I signed and stood up, I risked:
– Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone wanted to amend like this, if they all wanted to pay their taxes honestly?
He stared at me, motionless. The smoke of his cigarette, held loosely between his stained fingertips, was curling up against the translucent backdrop of the window. Seconds ticked by. Suddenly the corners of his mouth rose, the creases in his face followed upwardly and sparkles sprang from his eyes. A fleeting moment of joy. Perhaps the vision of a smiling throng scurrying to his office with flowers, contributions and confessions. A taste of mercy. A taste of paradise.
The delight vanished as the corners of his mouth regained their position.
– Good day, he said dryly.