Don't let the bastards fleece you

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

New Statesman
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

I am staring blankly at my bank statement. The baby woke up at four and my mind is not at its pin-sharp peak. T-Mobile have charged me £43.37. It’s a while since I gave any thought to my phone bill, what with giving birth and failing to buy a house and getting no sleep and all. But I’m pretty sure I’m only supposed to be paying £10 a month.

I cannot in any way be bothered to deal with this, but 33 quid matters these days. It is the kind of money we only spend on stuff that is absolutely necessary, like heating, water or an organic free-range leg of lamb. I should at least check that there hasn’t been a mistake. I search for a bill and then remember that the phone company stopped sending them in 2008, preferring to take random amounts of money out of my account without warning.

I phone the customer service number, and choose from one of six options. Then I choose from one of four options. Then a recorded message: “Due to a high volume of calls you may be waiting for ten minutes. You may find it easier to check the internet.”

I try to check the internet, but this requires a password that is lost in the mists of time and sleep deprivation. 1234? No. My birthday? No. Give up.

Baby Moe wakes up and starts to wail. I pick him up and jiggle him on my hip. Larry is deeply engaged with a Lego dinosaur. I calculate I have approximately seven minutes before he gets bored and starts to moan and tug on my leg. But now I’ve got the bit between my teeth. Why should I let these bastards fleece me?

The hold music tinkles away while I unload the dishwasher, load the washing machine, change Moe’s nappy and start to think about lunch. By this time I am staving Larry off with raisins. Finally a woman’s voice comes on the line. Her accent offers no clue as to where she is from; she might have been raised by robots.

“Madam, you have exceeded your minutes this month. According to our terms and conditions you are therefore subject to this reasonable charge.”

I beg. I bleat. I rage. I invoke the long years I have been loyally keeping T-Mobile afloat by nattering pointlessly all day. The robot woman is implacable. So I get personal.

“Are you happy to be working for a company that extorts money from struggling families?” It’s a cry from the heart. This is not just about the phone bill any more – it’s about all the injustice in this cruel world.

There is a long silence. When the voice speaks again it sounds a little less robotic, a little shaky.

“Madam, all I can do is give you a goodwill credit on your account for the sum of twenty pounds. I would be grateful if you would fill in the customer satisfaction survey. My name is Anita.”

I feel a bit sorry for Anita. Still, twenty quid is better than a slap in the face.