“54 million, 435 thousand, 987. The council associated to the prized coupon is Ferreira do Alentejo! Another lucky taxpayer, another lucky invoice, another car for you.” With red lipstick on her lips, the host smiles to the camera. The TV set now shows the model that was awarded: an Audi A4 2.0 TDI with 136 bhp, worth 40 thousand Euros.
On the first Lucky Invoice draw, held April 17th, two people were rewarded. The first car went to a taxpayer in Amadora (one of the largest councils in Lisbon’s Metropolitan area), the second one went to the Alentejo region. Only the council where the lucky person is tax registered is revealed, the name and tax number are kept secret. But if Amadora is too large to go looking for the “lucky taxpayer”, the same can’t be said of Ferreira do Alentejo, a town just a few kilometers away from Beja, district capital, where people still know each other. You’d expect that, days later, newspaper covers and TV networks would be filled with statements and photographs of such a lucky taxpayer besides his new ride. But days went by, weeks followed and nothing.
The first contacts started. A friend who was born there, a phone call to her parents, and a clue appears. “He’s a relative of the lady who had a grocery store where ‘O Chico’ restaurant is now.” That’s good enough. Once in Ferreira do Alentejo, finding the restaurant is easy.
Smiles widen when you talk about the “invoice car”. And the answer comes surprisingly fast: “It was Mr. Manel, yes. He’s our landlord. Once, his wife had a grocery store here. He lives in Canhestros. He’s a taxi driver. Do you want his number?” Chico makes the phone call while he tells the story of the days following the draw. “He called me asking if people were talking about the Audi a lot and he eventually slipped. I just don’t know if he got it or his son. Some say it was his son.”
Manuel Valente is a playful man, always joking about everything. So, it’s hard work convincing him we want to interview him to find out if he really is a “lucky taxpayer”. We managed to set a meeting in the afternoon. Manuel was in Beja on a job and it would take him a while to get back to Ferreira do Alentejo.
Going once around town – it’s already very hot close to noon and few people walk the streets lined with white houses – and a new suspicion comes with each person you meet. In José Luís Correia’s grocery store, the car stopped being news a while ago, but right after the draw he also heard that the taxi driver had been awarded. “He didn’t accept it. How can someone have money to pay taxes and maintenance on that thing?”, the grocer questions, not knowing however that the ride comes free of taxes and with two years maintenance paid for. “It’s best when you get money. My daughter won a few years back, a lot of it, on the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ show. That was very good”, José assures. As for business, the same as usual. It’s not because the car made a “lucky taxpayer” in Ferreira that everyone else started asking for invoices. “No one does.”
At 3p.m., only in the shade can you stay in the Alentejo town, making it a bit more difficult to wait for Manuel Valente. After a 30 minute delay, Manuel answers the phone to say he won’t be coming. “An Audi? I still haven’t seen anything! People started joking around saying I got it, but I didn’t. How could I hide something so large?! Look, I’ve got another ride. See you.”
At the restaurant, no one was surprised. Chico says that, a few days after the draw, Manuel went back on his word: he hadn’t won the car after all, he was just joking around. And Isabel, the waitress, says the winner is someone else called Marco Inverno, a young man from Canhestros, the village where the taxi driver lives. “On Facebook that day, everyone was congratulating him for winning the car”, she says.
It’s around 15 kilometers from Ferreira do Alentejo to Canhestros. With around 400 inhabitants and a National Road running through it, the village has a roundabout decorated with miniature houses and it’s name on a huge stone panel, but it still hasn’t seen an Audi A4 parked around. Obviously, the 90 days deadline to collect the ride still isn’t over. But the talk about Canhestros’ “lucky taxpayer” soon faded.
It’s cool inside the parish country building, one of the largest in the village, with white walls and yellow aluminum windows, matching the blinds. There are no longer any signs of the explosion that a year and a half ago frightened the village, when two hooded men tried to blow up the ATM located in the parish building using gas.
Maria José was sitting behind the counter. Luísa, Rosita and José occupied the chairs on the outside. They seem to be waiting for their turn, but they aren’t, they’re just there, maybe just passing time. The floor is tilled and the ceiling is very high up. That’s why the voice of any stranger who goes in is amplified, and being discrete becomes impossible. Everyone listens to the reason for the visit and readily offer their opinions.
Luísa, a blond woman wearing a blue t-shirt, immediately puts aside the suspicion cast a few hours ago by Isabel, the waitress from the restaurant in Ferreira do Alentejo. She’s the aunt of Marco Inverno and assures her nephew didn’t win the invoice car. “If he’d gotten it, he’d be running around showing everyone, he’s young.” Rosita explains how that story began: “On Facebook that day, the car was awarded to everybody on the village. It was all a big joke.” Rosita, cousin of Manuel Valente, the prime “suspect”, guarantees that if her cousin had been the lucky man he wouldn’t even bring the car to the village, “he’d turn it into cash right away and no one would even dream about it”.
The only certainty is that the car went to someone from the council. Maria José, the employee laughing behind the counter, puts a different possibility forward: “It could have been awarded to an elderly who doesn’t know how to collect the prize and doesn’t even have Internet access or isn’t registered.”
As soon as the taxpayer is selected, that lucky person’s page on the Finance Portal almost immediately informs that the person won. But you need a password to enter. In any event, a few days later, an e-mail or a letter is sent to the person’s fiscal address. Then, the person must go to the area’s tax office and wait to be told where’s the nearest car dealer to pick up the car.
In Canhestros, no one has seen a brand new Audi shredding the asphalt. “For four or five days, people didn’t talk about anything else and the TVI network even came here, but the car doesn’t show up. Who’s got the car?”, José Venâncio questions. Rosita adds: “There are many mysteries here in Canhestros.”
It’s 4:30p.m. and the bar at the Sports, Culture and Recreation Association is closed. Maybe that’s why the esplanade at the ‘Gatinho’ restaurant is full. A dozen locals discuss the matter and ask anyone who comes in, with a mocking tone, if they’re the lucky one. “Hey Maria, did you get the car?” And they laugh their heart’s out.
The restaurant owner joins the conversation. “I didn’t win it, but they should just say who it was. They should just say it!” She’s angry. A low voice says: “I heard it went to Doctor Lopes, in Ferreira. The lawyer.” She says it with a shrug like someone who believes prizes are always given to those who need them the least. “I’ve heard that as well”, assures a woman who’d just joined the group.
Back at Ferreira do Alentejo, it’s easy to find Francisco Palma Lopes’ office. Everybody knows him. He opens the door smiling and, leaning back in his leather chair, he lets out a laugh at the question: “Did you win the Audi?”
“It wasn’t me, but people have even called congratulating me. Many people have called. The truth is I have no idea how my name even got connected to that. But look, what I was told is that it was a taxi driver from Canhestros…” The one whose wife had a grocery store where ‘O Chico’ restaurant now is.