This Sort of Thing...


The Jammy Tax Dodger


When I’m settling up for what I owe when leaving a restaurant, disembarking from a taxi, admiring my newly coiffured curls in the mirror at Stanislav’s Shearing Salon (a fresh dressing for every wound) or putting my vest back on at Mucky Monika’s Yummy Massage I almost always give a tip. This is because I worked for many years in a sector where tipping was normal. Although not expected or suggested, a small token of appreciation would give me the impression that my client was satisfied with the service I had provided which, in turn, gave me a sense of satisfaction too. Ever since then I’ve done the same in the hope that it has contributed a little to brighten up someone’s working day and make them feel valued.

The particular service that I provided was foot health care, performed largely in the homes of elderly people who often had quite severe foot problems, or who had no foot problems at all but were too arthritic or overweight to reach down to cut their toenails themselves or who just enjoyed the fact that someone like me would come to their house and have a cuppa and a nice chat with them while making them feel good, at least in the area of their pedal extremities. So every working day at hourly intervals I would be thanked, paid and in a lot of cases, tipped.

Prior to this rewarding chapter of my working life I had, over a period of twenty-five years, sat at desks in a variety of offices.  During this time, I only ever heard the words ‘thank you’ when I had taken my turn at making the coffee or told someone that their hair looked nice. Once a year I would be invited into a small meeting room by my boss to be told that I had done quite well but not well enough to deserve a worthwhile pay rise and if only I could show a bit more interest in what we were supposed to be doing as a company, which I’d love to tell you about now but, in truth, I can’t remember because I really wasn’t the slightest bit interested in their exciting new projects, team meetings or client relations. Though there was one client in Milton Keynes who suggested having relations but I told her that I was happily married with ten kids and that I was too busy configuring pensions increases on her company’s payroll database to be bothered with any other sort of upload situation, especially considering that viruses might be a risk.

So, as a self-employed travelling toe tinker, a shiny pound coin from dear old Elsie’s pinafore pocket or a can of John Smith’s bitter from Victor’s fridge made a huge difference to my self-esteem. After all those years of being taken for granted it was wonderful to feel appreciated. Although only in a small way, it was a million times better than to feel not appreciated at all.

As my experience and confidence grew so did my list of clients and my reputation. My phone would ring and a voice I had never heard before would say something like ‘My friend Betty who I sit next to at the day centre on Tuesdays said you go to her house to cut her feet and you’ve got an electric machine to do it with and you make her laugh so will you come and do mine because my corns are killing me so I can hardly walk and bring your holiday photos cos Betty said they’re nice?’

It was strange to know that people were talking about me behind my back but in a nice way. How could I say no to these lovely old characters who often suffered from loneliness as much as they did from bunions (or hallux abducto valgus, as we say in the trade). In most cases I enjoyed their company as much as they enjoyed me being there, so a smile and a thank you (in addition to my fee, of course) was ample reward.

However, many of them felt the need to give me some sort of tip. It was usually a ‘keep the change love’ or ‘here’s a pound’. Sometimes it was a twenty pence piece and sometimes it was a twenty pound note. I always tried to refuse and they always would say something like ‘Go on. I can’t take it with me when I go. You won’t find no pockets in shrouds’, as they chuckled and winked at me.

For the first time in my life I was doing work that I found interesting. As a one-man operator I was responsible for every aspect of my business. I took on sole responsibility for operations, accounting, advertising, procurement, research and development, information technology, my transport fleet (an ageing but reliable Honda Civic) and customer satisfaction. I was the management and the workforce within the business so there were never any arguments over pay and conditions. I never said no to any offer of work and consequently I would put in insanely long hours every week. I was a footman that people could turn to when most of the others said their business diaries were full. And customers could see this. They were delighted that I was always available and, if it turned out that they weren’t skipping about pain-free after my visit, I would return to their houses within a day or two to administer minor adjustments without additional charge.

But they wanted to pay me. They wanted to make sure that I would keep coming. They wanted to give me a bit extra and although I tried to decline their generosity they would insist. They could see that I was reluctant to accept money so they would reward me in different ways. They would give me a piece of cake with the tea or coffee that they allowed me to make for us in their kitchens. They would give me packets of biscuits that they said they couldn’t eat, socks or scarves that they had knitted to keep their minds active, books and magazines that their families had bought them to keep their minds active but which were really of no interest to them and clothes that had belonged to their by then deceased husbands (or wives) that they thought might fit me.

People who I visited on farms would give me fresh free-range eggs, poultry and honey. Customers who liked to cook but who had nobody to feed would give me bread, cakes, mince pies, sausage rolls and on a few occasions a homemade curry. One old man thought he was doing me a huge favour by giving me tips for bets on horse racing and told me that if I’d put fifty or a hundred pounds on every horse that he suggested I wouldn’t need to work again. I asked him who would see to his fungal feet if I were to become a professional gambler. He thought for a while and then replied using the lingo of the snooker hall.

The six weeks or so leading up to Christmas would always be the most bountiful. Customers who didn’t normally give me a tip would often add a bit on to my fee or sneak Christmas cards containing banknotes of varying denominations into my instrument bag. I was inundated with chocolates, biscuits, Christmas puddings, fresh vegetables (that were fresh at a point one month before I was due to cook the family festive meal), novelty ties, novelty socks, novelty coffee mugs and novelty just about anything that can be noveltyised.

Wine was the biggest item on the festive gratuity agenda. Every year round about sixty or seventy lovely people would give me a weighty bottle bag saying ‘Here’s a drop o’ summat to have with your Christmas dinner’. Sometimes it was utter plonk and sometimes it was incredibly good quality wine. On one occasion it was a bottle that probably cost the same as a decent bottle of wine but turned out to be Sainsbury’s economy brand whiskey. It said on the label ‘ideal for mixing’ which probably meant not ideal for drinking in the usual drinking way. No matter what the quality, it was the thought and their kindness that mattered to me.

I enjoy a glass of wine but the sixty or seventy Christmas bottles, plus a few more for my birthday and the occasional one from generous clients who had something to celebrate like their daughter’s wedding or a small win on the premium bonds or Brechin City getting through to the second round of the Scottish Cup (though that didn’t happen very often) or something to feel sorrowful about like Brechin City not getting through to the second round of the Scottish Cup, rattled up to a total that might be associated with a lightweight alcoholic. And most of the time I was working at least five days a week so there was little scope for early morning grogginess. Consequently, I would find that as one Christmas approached I would still have a few bottles remaining from the previous Christmas. To overcome this minor predicament, I would give some of them as presents to other people I knew, such as the milkman, the window cleaner or the manager of my local detox centre, or for use as raffle prizes at some of the care homes I worked in.

One of my customers was a mobile hairdresser. We used to tramp the same patch in our different professions. She would recommend me to some of her customers and I would reciprocate the gesture when required. Sometimes when I’d finished the job of making my dear elderlies’ feet look beautiful they would say ‘You don’t do hair as well do you?’ so I’d give them her phone number. Whenever I was chiselling away at the hairdresser’s callosities (a common affliction for people who spend their entire day standing up) we would chat about the amusing things that we came across during the course of our working week. There were so many similarities as far as the clientele were concerned, including the incredible abundance of generosity and the recycling of unopened bottles of wine when the festive season came around. I didn’t say a word, other than words of thanks, but inwardly laughed when one December afternoon she gave me a bottle bag that had a gift tag attached bearing the words ‘Happy Christmas Nicky. Best wishes from Dougie’. I never found out if she had done this as a joke or if she just hadn’t noticed the label and what was written on it. I thought about giving it back to her the following year for fun but one miserable night in February, after a day full of particularly nasty ingrown toenails (or as we in the trade would say, onychocryptosis) and some bad news from the Brechin City supporter, I drank it.

Food items that were past their ‘use before’ dates, that were in jars with lids that were difficult to remove or which were a bit too spicy or exotic for the traditional English palate were donated to me to adorn my pantry. A tea cosy that was too tight for the owner’s teapot, a garden bench that was easier to give away than to repaint each spring, a book about flower festivals in Latvia which contained a few colour photographs that might be construed as being supportive of a Communist regime and a 1960s jazz magazine autographed by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.  A dear old fellow who seemed to worry about my welfare more than I did myself gave me a Tesco carrier bag containing French francs, Spanish pesetas and Greek drachma in case the European Central Bank ever collapsed while I was away on holiday.

By far the best thing that I received in this time was a collection of more than one hundred classical music CDs. An elderly lady whose husband had died wanted me to have them because he had loved them but she only liked the classical music that she had heard in adverts on television (particularly O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana which, down the years, had cajoled the British public into buying a million bottles of Old Spice aftershave). Added to my own music shelf, I still have them. Most of them are wonderful and I’m sure I’ve listened to even the more obscure ones at least once. Admittedly I struggled a bit with Gustav Mahler. What a different world we would be living in if the people in the advertising industry had used his Das Lied Von Der Erde (Song of the Earth) to promote Alphabetti Spaghetti or the Allied Carpets Bank Holiday Warehouse Clearance Sale.

One of my gentleman customers had spent his entire working life as a tax inspector but, being the professional that I was, I still treated him with courtesy and respect. We chatted about many things during the course of my visits but I remember on one occasion telling him about the fringe benefits of my trade. With a wry smile he said that he hoped that all these items would be listed on my annual return to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. I was sure that they would be interested in the money but there was never enough room on the form to list the tins of 1996 tuna in tomato sauce, the bottles of Canadian white wine, the Homer Simpson Christmas jumpers and the jigsaw puzzles that had ten or twelve pieces missing because a cat had eaten them.

I always accepted the things I was offered, even when I didn’t really want them. To turn something down would have seemed ungrateful and any items that didn’t correspond with my personal list of desires would be passed on to other clients who I thought might appreciate them, or to charity shops or to my own cat. The most difficult item to deal with was a large cardboard box full of framed family photographs that a lady no longer wanted because she hated her family but thought I could find a use for the nice, quite expensive looking frames. At that point I realised that I was becoming more of a recycling centre than a therapist worthy of a bonus.

However, the majority of these gifts from kind customers was in the form of homemade jam. Throughout the year ladies (always ladies… men must have considered jam making to be a bit effeminate) would thrust a jar of something sticky in my hand at the end of a job or leave one on a table alongside the payment and the card awaiting details of the next appointment. I always accepted and when interrogated at the next visit I would always enthuse over how delicious it had been, even though if I had tasted it at all I usually couldn’t remember. Any over-appreciation that I displayed would then result in me being given two jars, or three, or some homemade marmalade or chutney to vary things a bit.  I would receive around a dozen jars every week which I just couldn’t decline but also I couldn’t possibly eat, largely because I was too busy drinking all the wine. So I would give the bulk of them to other customers who were genuinely as grateful as I had pretended to be.

A lady called Connie was the main source of my syrupy supply. I used to tell her she was my dealer which made her laugh, revealing a bit of a shortage of teeth, probably caused by a lifetime’s over-indulgence in jam. Walking through her front door the conversation would usually begin with ‘I’ve got some jam to give you because it’s spring and I need to make some space in the cupboard because it’ll soon be time to make some more jam or because it’s summer and the trees are full of fruit or because it’s autumn and everybody needs a drop of jam to cheer them up when the air turns a bit chilly or because it’s nearly Christmas and who doesn’t like a bit of jam on their toast while they’re opening their presents or it’s rhubarb and ginger jam and I know you really like that and oh that corn’s playing me up a bit on my little toe’. She was happy being kept busy turning out vast quantities of jam and giving it to those who she knew and loved and I was happy because it made me feel appreciated and it made those people who I passed most of it on to feel happy and appreciated too; though I had to tell them not to tell anybody else in case Connie or the people at the tax office found out. Things only became difficult when she and some of her contemporaries started asking me if I had any empty jars. I had none but I couldn’t tell them that. So as a pusher of their wares I had to ask my users if they would give me back the jars when they had emptied them. Consequently, the scale of the operation increased and as time went by it turned out that as much space in the boot of my car was taken up by jars of jam and empty jam jars as by my chiropody equipment.

Eventually it all became too much for me and I had to retire on the grounds of comfiture related anxiety. Sadly, and somewhat hastily, I said goodbye to my beloved clientele and ran away to Bulgaria to live in seclusion in a small village in a forested valley where nobody knew my history or spoke my language. Three years went by and I was starting to get my life back together when I met Priyatelkata. She’s a wonderful woman who I dearly love but in this warm and fertile country there is a superfluity of fruit in every garden, in every hedgerow, in every forest and in every market and she uses it to make a variety of preserves. Fortunately, nature’s gifts to us can also be used to make rakia (a very potent fruit brandy distilled in almost every home in south east Europe) and I find that having litres and litres of this stuff around the house is the perfect distraction to keep me off the jam. But please don’t tell Connie.


The contents of Connie's handbag.

Number of comments: 1

28/06/2023 09:56:57 - See Below

As a lover of both Gustav Mahler and Alphabetti Spaghetti I would like to complain about the lack of initiative and the failure to bring these two fine bodies of work together in the name of business enterprise.

It's just not croquet!

Eva Braun-Marx (Ms)
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