By Matthew Harrison
“He’s still holding out, sir,” Ken said. “Keeps insisting he’s French, was swearing at us in French just now—at least, I think that’s what it was!” The young man laughed nervously, indicating through the one-way window the suspect sitting in the brilliantly-lit interrogation room.
Malcolm, His Majesty’s Senior Inspector of Taxes, indulged his assistant for a moment. Then he said, “You didn’t know whether it was French?”
Ken stopped laughing. “It sounded like that. I’m afraid I’ve just got schoolboy French, a long time ago…”
“Anyway,” he rallied, “we’ve taken him through the standard tests—played ‘Rule Britannia,’ clips of Man U, Arsenal, Chelsea, that sort of thing—but no reaction at all. He either really is French, or he’s hiding his Britishness pretty well.”
Malcolm nodded, although the young man’s conclusions hardly impressed him. Yet what tools did the poor boy have? How much easier it had been for his forebears who went tax-collecting with the thumbscrews! But one had to respect the times.
He peered into the interrogation room. Britain’s tax rates had recently been raised, and they had a spate of people pretending to be foreign. It was his job to sort out the true Brits, so that they would pay their tax. Here, they had an intelligent-looking man, sixtyish, greying hair that had once been dark, apparent good health—nothing to distinguish him from millions of his fellows across the European Federation. Yet the distinction mattered; it would determine where his fortune would be taxed. And the only pressure they could apply was football replays!
Still, they had to work with what they’d got. Had Ken tried the history angle?
“Sure,” the young man said brightly. “We knew he was educated, so we went straight to Waterloo, Trafalgar—even back to Agincourt! He actually spat when we mentioned Crecy.”
“I see. Celebrities?”
“Oh, we did them first—Ant and Dec, Simon Cowell, Liz Hurley, Joanna Lumley—you name them, we’ve run them past him. No reaction, though.”
“I mean, nothing that would pin down a nationality,” Ken said hastily. “It seems he rather fancied Liz, Joanna too, but that isn’t specific enough. You could even say it was an indication of Frenchness—”
“Yes, yes, you can hold that there,” Malcolm raised a hand. Then he had a thought. “Joanna Lumley, you say? Hmm, the age range…”
It was time to confront the suspect. As Malcolm entered the interrogation room, the man looked up, and the tax inspector was gratified to see a momentary shiver. But the suspect pulled himself together and managed a smile. “Jean-paul,” he said, extending a hand. “Hope we can sort out ce petit embarrass.”
Malcolm shook hands, and the two men sat down facing one another across the table. Ken sat a little to one side.
“Now,” Malcolm began, “as has been explained to you, we are obliged to ascertain your nationality. We operate in accordance with standard protocols to determine where your taxes should properly be paid.” He read the suspect his rights.
Jean-paul nodded. “I have faith in the justice of the British,” he said.
Malcolm navigated the touchpad, and tapped an icon. Jean-paul braced himself. The space between them sprang to life with whirling holographic figures; tinny music blared out of the hidden speakers.
“Do you recall the Magic Roundabout?”
Jean-paul shook his head resolutely. Malcolm let Zebedee finish, and then switched to another icon. In front of them, a frenetic figure with false teeth bobbed up, while manic laughter rang through the room. “Ken Dodd and Diddymen?”
Jean-paul shook his head. He was pale, Malcolm noted with satisfaction. But that wasn’t enough.
Malcolm tried more TV shows from the seventies, then switched to food. Images of fish and chips slipped languorously into view, accompanied by the smell and even the sound of fish frying in the pan, of batter crunching between the teeth. Jean-paul quivered, his hands gripping the table. Malcolm, merciless now, ratcheted up the pressure with toad-in-the-hole, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, spotted dick…
Jean-paul, his jaw clamped tight, was breathing deeply through his nose, sweat running down his temples. But he was holding out. He flung a defiant glance at his interrogator.
Malcolm eased off. The last of the food images disappeared, and the tabletop appeared again. Normal lighting resumed. Jean-paul, head thrown back like an athlete who had won his race, was breathing in great gasps.
“You’re doing very well, Jean-paul,” Malcolm congratulated him. “We just have one last formality…”
The tabletop flickered, images span, children’s voices rang out, a matronly figure called out, “Music and movement, children! Miss Baines, please.”
A piano struck up ‘Humpty-Dumpty,’ the children-images fell silent, there was the sound of small feet shuffling across the floor. Jean-paul’s eyes widened in horror, his whole body rigid.
Malcolm steered the navigation. The scene changed to a suburban garden at night with flames and smiling adults, while excited young voices sounded against the crackling of a bonfire. Fireworks shot into the air with the smell of gunpowder; a sparkler appeared, very large, as if held by the viewer. Then came a motherly voice, “Time for tea, children! Beans on toa – oast!”
Jean-paul broke down. Slumped on the table, holograms playing across his back, he sobbed uncontrollably. Ken turned to his superior in surprised admiration.
Malcolm switched off the holo and signaled his assistant to bring in the forms. Together, they supported John Paulson as, with a shaking hand, he signed his affirmation of British nationality. “Childhood memories,” Malcolm murmured, half to himself. “Gets them every time.”
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely, his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary, and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.