At first glance, the large A4 envelope that arrived through the mail last Friday from E.ON Energy seemed like one of those boastful brochures sent out by banks, local councils and utility companies to tell you how brilliantly they have been doing.
It was not. The envelope contained a 20-page bill with some of the charges for electricity dating back to April 2003. It said: "Please pay £5,914.98."
It is shaking when a large corporation delivers a financial missile like this into one's private life. Not many people have £6,000 in their back pocket to pay for an alleged ancient debt they never knew they had incurred. The tone of the bill and the fact that no kind of explanation was thought to be needed, seemed threatening. A communication that is computerised, riddled with jargon and incomprehensible – except for the money it is demanding – can feel very much like corporate bullying.
If I was alarmed by this, I wondered what the effect would be on someone who was more financially vulnerable.
Is E.ON's position even legal? My meter has been read regularly over the past decade and I have paid my bills on time. If they seemed low, I put that down to living for the first time in my life in a modern, low-energy house which uses only a moderate amount of electricity.
I wrote to the company, asking for some kind of explanation of what was going on, and then turned to Twitter for advice. The speed of response from helpful people, and the level of their expertise, was startling.
I was pointed to advice from the Citizens' Advice Bureau which said: "From July 2007, companies who have through error failed to issue bills will be expected not to bill for any amount which dates back for longer than a year."
My sad story, bouncing around Twitter, eventually reached an account called @E.Onhelp. "We're here to help Terence," wrote their twelper (the term they like to use – there is an E.ON Twelper of the Month). "Are you free for me to call you? Might be easier."
It is odd, and very much of the moment, that between the caring-sharing and smiley faces of the online help and the blunt threat of the computerised bill, there is no one in the organisation – a human being – who could ring or write to me before the bill was sent to explain the problem. The firm expected me to compensate it for its own mistakes. No wonder energy companies have acquired such a miserable reputation.