Sunday, August 20, 2006

Don't ask me I just work here

Customer service advisor. That would be someone who, if you are very lucky you’ve reached on the phone after completing a PhD thesis in number punching. Someone who doesn’t speak your language and knows nothing of the service about which you wish to engage them in cheery banter. The only foolproof way to avoid having to deal with these offshore viral bugs in the house of happiness, is to not buy anything. Having made virtually no money this year and indulging in an obscene number of holidays, I find non-consumerism both refreshing and inescapable.

Fantasies of a deserted island with no bureaucracy, utilities or communications (but, strangely, high speed broadband – surely it’s possible in this day and age), will be realised one day. However, in the meantime and in this climate I cannot do without electricity and gas.

My gas supplier and I have a complex and rather too intimate relationship. It began with them literally not knowing I existed. My flat was brand new when I moved in and, although I received gas, I received no subsequent request for payment. Welcome as this may have been, my keen mind perceived that, as a long term arrangement it was probably flawed. A big, fat bill would surely arrive one day and that day would most likely be a week before Christmas when I hadn’t worked for three months.

‘Your address doesn’t exist’, I was repeatedly told with confident authority when I phoned Customer Services. I learned my meter number by heart and was able to show a steady progression in gas consumption. It was all to no avail until I, overcoming the metaphysical conundrum, suggested that someone might like to come around and look at the meter since that most definitely did exist. This did the trick because the meter had the address of my flat written on it ... and … and … and, this address was conveniently right next to the existent meter. Still, Mr Gas would not entirely concede. ‘We had no record of this address’, he told me ungraciously. Whatever.

It all went quiet there for a few years until I came back from a three month trip to Australia in the middle of January to a freezing flat and no gas. It was snowing heavily and the canal outside my window was frozen over. Very jolly. I dragged out the cash guzzling electric fires, wrapped myself up in three duvets and made the call. Remarkably, an answer was forthcoming. A neighbour thought they smelled gas coming from my empty flat. Someone had come out and changed the meter but needed a signature from me to turn the gas back on. Someone came that day. A miracle. Or not …

An uneventful month passed and then I got two gas bills, both addressed to me with the slight variation that one assumed I was male. This bill was for a large amount of money and it had my old meter number. The one with the new meter number was for a small amount, about right since there hadn’t been any gas used for three months. Simple. A new account was opened but the old one hadn’t been closed and, since the meter couldn’t be located, an estimated amount was billed. Was this obvious to Ms Gas? It was not.

Ms Gas took the interesting point of view that there were indeed two customers with the same name and very similar addresses. Did I know this other Noosa Lee and his proper address? Perhaps I had married someone with exactly the same name and simply forgotten about him. Although why this intimate would need his own gas supply remains a mystery. I had gone from not existing at all to existing in multiple, possibly in parallel universes and could slip between the two. Methinks someone had been reading too much Philip K Dick.

As my ghost spouse’s gas consumption climbed to nearly four figures, after six months I was no closer to sorting it out. It was when a bailiff came around and tried to gain entry by devious means that I finally did what I should have done immediately, I complained to the regulator. I know I can change suppliers and I probably should find an ethical company that sources renewables but as I’m always thinking of moving to an island in the sun, there hardly seems any point.

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