‘Hello, I’d like my money back, please,’ I said to the nice lady on the other end of the line.
And if the nice lady on the other end of the line had been working for anyone other than a utility company, I would probably have had my money back a few moments later. As it was, my request to be refunded the £113 that my gas and electricity accounts were in credit triggered a journey into the first circle of hell (limbo).
‘Right,’ said the lady, after I had given her my meter readings, which bore out the fact that my gas account was in credit by £88.13 and my electricity by £25. ‘I see you are due an assessment in March. If, at that time, you are still in credit, you can ask for the amount to be refunded then.’
I tried again. ‘I don’t want to wait until March. I would like my £100 back now, please. So that it’s sitting in my account accumulating hardly any interest, and not in yours?’
In answer to this, the nice lady explained something called my ‘payment plan’. This was a mechanism by which my payments were being ‘spread evenly’ for my convenience by British Gas taking too much from me. The rules of the payment plan were very complicated and the following is only an approximation:
‘You can’t have your money back now because of this, that and the other, and something or other about something else, and some other things as well, and so because of that, and some further things, including this and that and so on and so forth, we will continue to take your direct debit payments whether or not you owe us that amount or not.’
‘But I want my money back.’
‘Oh yes, and you will be able to have it back. If and when at a future date at your re-assessment something or other happens, at which point this and that and the other will come into play and you will be able to do something or other which will result in something new happening which will in turn lead to something else and if this is judged to have happened, along with several other things, and this and that, then we will, of course, refund you the money.’
She was terribly nice. She sounded like a good person, not a person who would cheat me. I’m sure I could find a way to get through to her. ‘I just want my money,’ I said, sounding pathetic.
‘Yes, I do understand,’ she said sweetly, ‘and you can have your money back, that’s no problem at all. But the thing is, I can’t refund you the money now because you have a payment due in three days’ time.’
‘How much for?’
‘You owe £77 for gas and £36 for electricity.’ I scribbled furiously on a piece of paper.
‘But hang on!’ I cried. ‘That makes £113. So I have exactly the amount in my account that I owe you.’
‘So, why don’t you just use that to pay my bill? Then send me a statement saying my account is now at zero.’
‘We can’t do that. We have to take the payment in the usual way. Then, if you want, you can ring us after the payment has gone through, which will be in five days’ time, and ask for the money to be credited back to you.’
I doubted she could hear herself because if she could, she would not be sitting in a chair talking to me. She would be running down the street with no clothes on and a sign round her neck saying, in big black capital letters: ‘The End Is Nigh! The World Has Gone Mad!’
This was precisely how I felt, anyway. Possibly, I would shortly be streaking down Balham High Road wearing a sandwich board urging people to turn to God before it was too late.
‘So to recap,’ I said. ‘I owe you £113 and I have £113 in my account, but you can’t use the £113 in my account to settle the bill for £113, you have to take another, separate £113. And then, once you have taken that other £113, I can ring up and ask you for the original £113 back?’
‘Right, I will do that then,’ I said. And I just did do it. The payment for £113 has come out of my bank account, and I just rang back and asked for that amount to be sent back to my account and they did send it back.
I am now dusting off my best black marker pen and casting my eyes about for a large piece of cardboard I can fold in two and cut a head hole out of.