Friday 10 September 2010

Memo to self

15st 6lb, 5.5 units. I drove to my house in Northumberland this morning to keep an appointment to have my electricity meter changed. I did not want my electricity meter changed. It was absolutely fine with me, even though the bills deriving from it were so eye-watering that npower refused to send me one for more than six months on the grounds that my usage could not possibly be right. Mind you, their bright idea was that maybe the meter was being read the wrong way round, and that the bigger number for overnight, Economy 7 (yes, it still exists) usage was actually the figure for what I was getting through in the day. This would have pushed my bill up from something north of a thousand pounds to a figure more closely resembling the national debt of a medium-sized African republic.

However, what I knew, and they didn’t, was that I have married a woman who does not entirely share my robust attitude to a bit of cold. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I grew up in a 1930s semi-detached house with no insulation, double glazing or central heating, and in which the only heated rooms were the kitchen and sitting room, each initially with open coal fires. This was perfectly normal in England in the late 1950s and 60s. Indeed, we were a middle class household with such luxuries as a TV, telephone and car (though not a refrigerator; which, in the circumstances, certainly was not needed for more than half the year). On chilly winter nights I would go to bed with a hot water bottle, wearing a pair of thick woolly socks, pyjamas, a pullover and, in extremis, even a dressing gown, and with my overcoat piled on top of the layers of blankets on my bed. It was common in the morning to find frost patterns crazing the inside of the leaded windows, and sometimes even for the glass of water I kept on my bedside table to have a thick layer of ice on the top.

I’ll admit that I have softened up a lot since I discovered central heating, but I still love open fires and designed my house so that it would always require those, with electric storage heaters just providing enough background warmth to take the chill off. But unfortunately Mrs H is not greatly enamoured of turning up to a freezing cold house, and I also thought it might prove a bit of a turn-off to potential buyers when I had the place on the market for most of last year. Hence hanging the expense and turning the storage heaters up in a thoroughly profligate sort of way to create something like a welcoming atmosphere. I suppose I could have stuck a loaf on top of one and thrown in the alluring smell of baking bread, too, though it might also have turned the place into a sort of Salvation Army Men’s Palace for mice, which would not have created the favourable impression for which I was striving.

I was first alerted to the whole meter-changing wheeze when I got home one evening and found a rather indignant card on my mat, complaining that some outfit called Meter Plus had come to carry out this work and found me not at home, tisk. I rang the number on the card and pointed out that they were likely to get this result in most British houses if they just pitched up without any warning, what with people going to work during the day and so forth. Added to which, my meter was almost brand new and surely did not need changing – it seemed like only the other day that it was installed. I remembered it well because they had insisted on replacing a perfectly clear, easy-to-read mechanical digital meter with one that had a poxily faint LCD display that was almost impossible to read. The lady at the call centre consulted her records and reported back, almost instantaneously, that I had been putting up with this irritation since it was installed in September 2000 and that it only had a ten-year life and needed replacing.

I wonder when electricity meters became short-life commodities? The thing with the whirling dials in my parents’ cloak cupboard certainly lasted from the day I attained consciousness of such things in the late 1950s until my widowed mother moved out of the house in the mid-1980s.

So we fixed a date and time and I duly organized my life to ensure that I could be at home for the half day required. And a man turned up, promptly and efficiently, though I later found only after disturbing each of my neighbours in turn to ask for directions, and walked confidently to the meter cupboard. Where he reported, oh dear, that he had been sent out with a single phase meter and mine was a multi-phase meter, whatever that means, so he wouldn’t be able to do the work after all. He also hummed and harred a lot about how terribly difficult it would be to do the job within the tight constraints of my very inconvenient meter cupboard, unless I could possibly remove all the shelving it contains. I pointed out that this was built in, and had been there when the last meter change was effected, so clearly it could be worked around. I also threw in my standard speech about how my builder friend who renovated the house back in 1988 had begged and pleaded with the then Northern Electric to install my meter in a cupboard outside, where it could be accessed when I was working away from home, and that it was they who had absolutely insisted on placing it in the top corner of a cupboard where it could only be read, let alone worked upon, by someone with the bodily flexibility of a contortionist whose repertoire included a pretty convincing imitation of Quasimodo.

I said that it would be inconvenient, but possible, for me to spend another day at home in two weeks’ time to enable the work to be carried out, and the bloke went off to ring his masters. He reported back that he had secured me the great boon of a fairly narrow time slot between 4 and 6p.m., and said that he hoped to see me then.

As I made my 240 mile journey across northern England to keep this appointment, it occurred to me that I had not received the “courtesy call” from Meter Plus to confirm it, as I had had last time. My hopes were accordingly low. But at 4.05p.m. sharp a white van drew up in my drive and a man got out. Not the original bloke, who had been as thin as a lath, but a colleague who could have made a few quid on the side doing imitations of the legendary silent screen star (and alleged rapist and murderer) Fatty Arbuckle. I concluded that Bloke A must have arranged for Bloke B to be rostered for the job as a cruel joke.

Much to my surprise, he had brought the right meter and managed to install it without smashing the entire contents of my store cupboard or having to be cut free by the emergency services. What is more, he was courteous and quiet. In fact, nothing whatsoever to moan about for comic effect. And at least, I thought, he will have replaced the completely unreadable meter with one which I might stand a sporting chance of being able to decipher.

When he had gone, I went to the meter cupboard to inspect his handiwork, and found that he had either given up and left the original meter in situ, or installed a completely identical replacement. It was as if he had never been.

Memo to self: be sure to sell this house or die before September 2020, when this futile rigmarole will presumably have to be endured all over again.

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