On the 28th of October 2014, I downloaded and attempted to fill in on line a form for parking suspension, so that a removal van can park outside my flat in a few weeks time. It had to be done at least ten days in advance and include a cheque for £80. That is the cost of parking in two bays for two days, more expensive than the fine for not getting a suspension. Quite a lot of people end up in that position whether they like it or not.
Owing to online intricacies I ended up posting it the next day, with a first class stamp. Since then I’ve had no reply. As the ten days allowed are slipping away, I decided I’d better head to Ealing Town Hall myself today, November 12th to find out what happened to the form and the fee. I duly received my ticket D729 to allow me to wait, while an electronic screen high up on the wall, next to an electronic image of the hideous glass barrack building we were inside, showed that there were only four people ahead of me. The ticket is provided by a company called QMATIC who boast on line that they provide, ‘free tickets.’ Even Ealing Council couldn’t charge for them even though QMATIC promise that having these bits of paper will, ‘Improve your service, grow your business, increase revenue and add customers, while selling more products to current customers. A great customer journey begins at the very first touch point. Yours begins today with us.’
I began my journey on a hard red chair with badly chipped paint, bolted to the floor, and waited. Sitting there watching people crowd in, I felt as if I was in some kind of children’s book, entitled, ‘National Costumes of the World.’ Babies howled, unattended toddlers crashed to the shiny floor with loud slapping sounds, people muttered to council interpreters in low voices.
After forty five minutes I was admitted to my booth. The woman behind the desk didn’t look at me, but demanded I produce some ID. I felt a bit worried as I only had my debit card, but she seemed to forget about this as I told her about the missing form, and she began to ring Ealing Parking Services. This was a bit of a shock. She tried endless numbers and couldn’t get through, just like me at home when I try to ring them. I thought I was right inside the council, talking to a council department, but there are very few real departments left these days, none of them available to the public. This was only ‘customer services.’ I could have rung Parking Services from home.
I suggested that she called the operator, as if you get a friendly one they will sometimes put you through to a living person in Parking Services, even though there are only three people working there. As time ticked by and there was no response to the pressure of her long red finger nail on the button, she went off to consult a colleague. I overheard the number she was given and jotted it down for future use if necessary, like a spy.
This time she got through to someone called Wayne who told her they had never received my application. This is the kind of news anyone who has gone all the way to the council building dreads to hear. My mind raced gloomily, realising I was probably going to be one of the people facing parking fines.
‘Do you have a copy of the form?’ she intoned, still not looking at me.
The answer was a sad, ‘no.’ I had the cheque number, but that was of no interest.
‘Can you pay now, by card?’ she asked as if this would solve what was now obviously a problem.
‘But I’ve already paid,’ I replied pathetically.
She went on talking to Wayne while I sat thinking that as time was now short I would have to pay again, and hope the first cheque if it turned up, would be destroyed by some responsible council employee. That sounded unlikely. Why did this letter get lost, of all letters? I could feel myself getting hot with anxiety.
She went on talking to Wayne, and I noticed she was doodling on her pad. That didn’t look good. My case was lost. She started smiling down the phone and chatting to the invisible Wayne. ‘I can tell how enthusiastic and interested you are,’ she said with flirtatious sarcasm.
I watched her face intently for any sign that he might be interested enough to look for my papers, that there might be any hope. An hour had gone by since I entered the ugly building, and I felt my spirits sinking to my damp socks.
‘Well everything is going through,’ she said putting the phone down and still not looking up. She didn’t say it but I assumed that the missing papers had now been found.
‘You won’t be hearing from us,’ she said. ‘There is no letter sent out, but the parking suspension will be applied on the dates given.’
So, my testing journey over, I could leave for home knowing that the council might do what they said they would do on the day, or Wayne might get even more bored and the papers might get lost again. Perhaps my lady and the inscrutable Wayne would get around to having a proper out of hours date. As I left I turned my ticket number D727 over. On the back it said: ‘QMATIC Valuing time.’
Whose time? Certainly not mine.