Yesterday, we got my grandmother set up on my Dad’s old iPad so we could call her on Facetime. She only lives a few doors down but she is in her seventies, has a long-standing medical condition and has been told to self-isolate. Self-isolation is her usual operational setting. If something can be done from home or by someone else, my grandmother is all for it. But my mother and I have both had colds in the last week and so we’re barred from the premises. We left the iPad in the porch and backed away, hoped the scribbled instructions on the piece of paper would be sufficient.
My grandmother is not a stranger to the wonders of technology. We’re friends on Facebook and, recently, she’s taken to waving at me through Messenger – something I’m not sure even I know how to do. No one else waves at me but Maureen. When I press on the notification, the yellow hand fills the screen: A WAVE FROM MAUREEN. Hello Maureen.
But she’s never used an iPad. So, when the instructions on the paper proved insufficient, we had to call her. Tricky, as my grandmother is deaf.
Enter Paul. Paul is my grandmother’s partner. He is an expert on two subjects: birds, and the Battle of Monte Cassino of January to May 1944. When it comes to technology, anything to do with the internet in particular, he feels personally offended.
‘Well I don’t see how it can be anything but BT,’ he told me last month as I tried to connect their decade-old laptop to a new modem.
‘BT hasn’t got involved yet, Paul,’ I said, as we stared at the flickering start-up screen. ‘I mean, it’s not even had a chance. The computer’s doing this all on its own.’
Paul also doesn’t always understand that when you talk through a phone you don’t have to scream.
‘CARON???!’ he yelled when my mother called him.
‘Hi Paul,’ my mother said, holding the phone away from her ear.
A few seconds of silence. Then: ‘…DID YOU JUST CALL ME?’
‘Yes, I did,’ said my mother. ‘I am. Calling you.’
‘I’m trying to call Mum on the iPad,’ my mum went on. ‘Are you with her?’
‘Can you check if she’s connected to the internet?’
‘On the top right-hand side of the screen, next to the battery symbol, there should be a little triangle.’
‘A… a triangle. Like a wedge shape. Is it there?’
‘I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING.’
Quieter, in the background, my grandmother: ‘What? On Facetime?’
‘NO, ON THE BATTERY.’
‘No,’ my mother said. ‘Not on the battery, next to it.’
Grandma: ‘There’s nothing there.’
Paul: ‘THERE’S NOTHING THERE.’
‘Ok… you’ll need to put in the internet password. It should be on the modem.’
Sounds of a major operation, as Paul moved from living room to hallway. ‘I HAVE IT,’ he screams. ‘IT’S A LITTLE ‘J’, THE NUMBER THREE-’
‘No, Paul,’ my mum said. ‘I don’t need to know that. Mum needs to know that. She needs to type it in.’
Paul read out the internet password to the street. Grandma tapped it in.
‘Ok,’ my mum said. ‘Now, can you see the little wedge symbol?’
‘It’s actually more of a fan,’ said my Dad, who had joined us in the kitchen.
‘WELL I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS,’ said Paul. ‘BUT THERE’S SOMETHING.’
‘Right,’ my mother’s eyes were now closed. ‘I’ll try and call you.’
She pressed the button. A few sinister beeps, then the mmmmwwwwaaaa: there she was. A black silhouette against the standing lamp.
‘Ok, Mum,’ my mother said. ‘We can’t actually see you because of the light. Could you move to the side slightly?’
The silhouette shifted, broke into colour. My grandmother. Her fluffy white hair, furrowed brow, pursed lips.
‘Oh bloody hell,’ she said. ‘I look terrible.’
‘You have to look terrible on Facetime,’ I said. ‘It’s the law.’
We did the usual – had the conversation everyone is having with their friends and relatives: How are you? Not so good, it’s all mad isn’t it? Yes but what can you do? Just crack on. Paul was still watching television in the background. He was watching a detective drama, or at least I hope he was, because interspersed with our conversation were lines about people getting beaten over the head, blood results, traces of narcotics where there shouldn’t be. Then:
‘How do you end the call?’
‘You press the button at the bottom.’
‘Oh yes, I see.’
The camera span around. We were looking at the bottom row of books on a shelf.
‘No,’ my mum said. ‘You’ve just spun the camera around. We’re looking at the-’
The camera span again. We’re staring at my grandmother again, but from a lower angle. Her brow was closer, mouth down-turned; we could almost see up her nose.
‘It’s the red one. You need to press the-’
Nothing in the Rulebook editor, Ellen Lavelle, is a graduate of the University of Warwick’s prestigious Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s working on a novel and interviews authors for her blog – you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. She is currently commissioning features for Nothing in the Rulebook and can be reached via the firstname.lastname@example.org email address.