Within an hour of getting back from holiday, I receive a text from the middle one in the US, asking if we’re available for a video call. He is at a joint birthday celebration for my Aunt Gladys and my father, who is about to turn 99.
Yes, I reply. We are available.
A moment later, devices all around the house begin to ping and chime. We answer them in turn, but the connection keeps failing. Finally, the youngest one is able to summon up the party on my laptop.
“Hello!” Gladys shouts.
“Make it bigger,” I say.
“I’m trying,” the youngest says.
The camera pans left, past a series of heads: my sister, the middle one, my sister-in-law, my nephew, my other sister, with a face mask dangling off one ear. The bulk of a dog passes across the frame. Finally my father appears, with a bloody mary in one hand. The oldest one and the youngest one put their heads either side of mine, to make sure we’re all in shot.
“Happy birthday!” we shout. My father produces a quizzical expression in response.
“They’re saying happy birthday,” my sister says.
“Look at those faces,” Gladys says. “Don’t any of them ever shave?”
“I’ve been on holiday,” I say.
“Like criminals,” Gladys says. “We’ve had brunch.”
The camera swivels and lurches. I catch a glimpse of the ceiling, and the back deck, and the tennis match on the television. When the frame returns to my father’s chair, he is no longer in it.
“I’m confused,” the youngest one says. My sister-in-law takes the phone into the front yard to show us the mildew on her courgettes.
“I have that,” I say. “There’s not much you can do. Water from the bottom.”
My nephew takes the phone into the living room to give us a tour of their CD collection. Then my brother grabs the phone and circles the outside of the house with it, showing me the latest levels of dilapidation: rotten shingles, flaky window frames, the spot where the big tree clipped the gutter when it blew down in the hurricane.
“We were lucky,” he says.
The phone is handed on and returns inside, past my brother-in-law, who is wearing a tiny party hat. My sister’s partner arrives, but it’s unclear whether she has come from the next room, or from Boston.
For a long time, the phone is left abandoned on a low table, pointing at the television, which is showing the first half of a European football match. The oldest one and I watch for a while.
“The picture isn’t bad, actually,” he says. Just when I think everyone at the other end has forgotten about us, the frame judders and shifts to pick up my father as he walks through the doorway.
“There he is,” someone says. My father is wearing a pair of dark grey trousers, which were evidently a birthday present.
“They’re nice, Bob,” says Gladys. “Where’s the shirt? Try on the shirt.”
“I wasn’t ready for this,” my father says. “My birthday isn’t for three days.”
“Take that one off,” my sister says. She and my sister-in-law crowd round him and begin tugging at his collar and sleeves. As the shirt starts to come over his head, my father grabs a shelf for balance.
“Quite a show you’re getting,” Gladys says, leaning into the frame.
“I don’t know where to look,” I say.
Finally the new shirt is produced from a box and pulled over his head.
“Much better,” Gladys says. “Go look at yourself in the mirror.” My father turns and leaves the room. The camera whirls.
The middle one and the oldest one strike up a transatlantic argument about the transfer market. A dog – a different dog – wanders past. I feel a bit lightheaded.
“What happened to my tennis?” Gladys shouts. “Put the tennis back on!”
The camera spins back to the doorway, where my father is once again standing in his new clothes.
“Well, Bob?” Gladys says.
“I’m breathtaking,” he says.