Price of Progress

Over the course of the summer, following two weeks away, we returned to Hungary and a familiar paper in our letterbox from the Post Office, informing us that we should collect a registered letter. The envelope contained a threatening missive from Főgáz, the Hungarian Gas company, informing us that if we did not pay something in excess of 76,000 forints which we owed, we would be cut off. Having received a number of such letters over the years, we no longer felt any sense of panic – the specified time had already elapsed without incident, and anyway, we had the small yellow counterfoils to prove payment.

I decided, however, to ring Főgáz – more out of a sense of curiosity than anything else. The youthful male voice was friendly as he entered our identification number into the computer system. There followed an awkward silence. Then he muttered, “According to what I can see, you don’t have any outstanding payments…” I asked him then, to account for the threatening letter. He could not. I enquired whether such registered letters were sent on the off-chance that someone more easily intimidated, an elderly person or a foreigner with little time (and probably less patience in trying to find some logic in the system), would take the easy way and simply pay in the demanded sum. No answer was forthcoming.

The following month we received the customary bill from Főgáz. Though it contained the familiar yellow pay-in slip, it also made a very unfamiliar demand for precisely 000.000 forints. Another month passed, and we received an identical bill. We had opted to pay a fixed monthly amount, followed up by an annual meter reading, and the last two ‘free’ bills now totalled 35,000 forints we had not paid. More surprising still, was the subsequent arrival of the postman with 41,000 forints for us in cash – from Főgáz. Was it mere coincidence that the two ‘free’ bills, in addition to the cash payment totalled the mysterious 76,000 forints? The explanation presented itself that, following our annual meter reading it was established we had used less gas than the projected yearly total, and that we were in fact owed money – not that we owed anything. This remains conjecture though, since we have received no communication subsequent to the registered letter.

In the now barely-remembered days before computers, (but in reality, only about ten years ago) we were still visited every first week of the month by the two pensioners who supplemented their meagre allowance by going door to door to read the gas or electricity meter, and who collected from us all what was due for the month preceding. Armed with nothing more than a large, battered leather bag, they climbed the steps to flats around the whole city. For years, pensioners like these covered the same patch, familiar to us all when we bumped into them in the street, but (as they said) never threatened – though in winter they obviously carried large quantities of cash.

Like distant relatives they chatted about the weather, their families, our children, the likely amount of a winter bill and ways of economising; they gratefully accepted cold water on hot summer days and hot tea on bitter frosty evenings. They were genuinely upset at the death of our elderly neighbours whom they had known for years – and we regretted in equal measure their departure, when a more ‘efficient’ system came to replace them.