"Haven't a clue," says Jonathan in the gruff, don't-hassle-me voice he always employs for his mother. "Why?" He licks a wooden spoon and scowls.
"I've been thinking about getting one," she says.
He pretends to choke, "What could you ever in a million years possibly need a fax for?"
Helen sips her wine, unperturbed. Among the many things I admire in her are an inexhaustible eye for the latest gadgetry and a graceful refusal to be riled by her son.
"Lots of things," she says simply.
"Leave her alone," I tell him as I empty the dishwasher. Whenever we can, Helen and I gang up on Jonathan. It's good to have a mother-in-law who's on your team.
The first time I met her, we were going to the theatre, the three of us. I hadn't known Jonathan long. We walked up Shaftesbury Avenue and she turned to me. "Look at him," she said, "That hair, that scruffy beard - doesn't he remind you of a used-car salesman?"
I'd only ever known men whose mothers openly worshipped them, who went out of their way to tell me how lucky I was even to be breathing the same air as their son.
Charlie's mother told me, quite seriously, that when he was a baby, he was able to pee in a dead straight line. "Really?" I said, lost for a follow-up, "That's nice." He was never the same for me again.
"OK, OK," says Jonathan, "How many times a week would you be faxing? Who? Come on, I want some examples."
"Well," says Helen, who serves on charity committees, "There've been a number of times in the last few months when someone's said 'fax it to me' and I've had to say no."
"Three times in three months," says Jonathan, "If that, I bet."
"Look," I begin to tell him, "If she fancies a fax - "
"And anyway," he continues, "do you even know what a fax is? It's just an excuse to extend a deadline - an invention for lazy journalists, lazy producers. If the fax wasn't invented, you'd just write it a day earlier and post it."
Helen sighs at the dull old idea of the Royal Mail. She's used it all her life - posting envelopes into a boring scarlet box, so a man can come along with his boring sack and van. Now she wants something faster, zappier, more hands-on. She's ready for a change. And I say, why not?
"Don't you see?" she says, "It's for when I'm an old lady," - I laugh: the "old lady" routine - "A friend or mine says it's a good idea for old ladies to have faxes, so they can keep in touch with their families."
Jonathan tosses a tea towel in the air in disbelief, "You put old ladies in homes, you don't fax them!"
But Helen sips her wine and smiles at me. "I don't see what's wrong with faxing as a way of keeping in touch."
"What's wrong with the phone?"
"It's easier to fax," says Helen doggedly.
"It's not really, you know," I offer meekly.
"I can't believe my ears." Jonathan turns on me, "Are you sick? Are you really disagreeing with my mother?"
"She's entitled to a fax if she wants one," I snap, adding, "But it's true that the phone is easier."
"Think about it, mother," says Jonathan, dropping lids noisily back on to pans (like all those Men Who Cook). "You've got to get a piece of paper and a pen and sit down and write out a message by hand - "
"Or type it on my word processor," says Helen.
"Oh, OK, so switch on your computer, go ahead, let's use up as much energy as possible, who wants to save the fucking planet?"
"Well then, if I write it?"
"You've got to put the piece of paper in the fax, dial the number, wait, press the green button," Helen visibly brightens at the mention of multi- coloured buttons, "And wait for it to go through."
"It is true," I say, "You could have sat down and phoned in the time."
"And it's friendlier to phone!" adds Jonathan (who's not renowned for his phone manner), "What makes you think we want to get a load of faxes from you, just because you suddenly thought of something you wanted to say?"
"'He's very rude, isn't he?" says Helen benignly.
"I can understand you wanting to press buttons," I tell her.
"The one in Peter Jones was very reasonable," she says, putting down her glass, "And it has an answerphone."
"You've got an answerphone! God give me strength."
On our way to settle the kids, Helen and I go up to Jonathan's study at the top of the house to admire the new sofabed. Helen sits down and looks around her. It feels like looking round some rare animal's lair when he's out hunter-gathering. I suddenly see the masses of papers (and faxes), the curling photos on the pinboard, a half-empty pot of apricot jam. The room's holding its breath till he comes back.
"Look at all the chocolate he keeps up here!" Helen exclaims, noticing the wine goblet full of little, foil-wrapped Galaxy eggs, the packs of finger biscuits, "How does he got through it?"
"That's nothing," I take a jar of Sainsbury's Hazelnut Chocolate Spread from the shelf, "You know what he does with this?" She shakes her head, "Sits there with his feet up on the desk and sticks his fingers in and licks them!"
"He's disgusting, isn't he?" she says. And we both enjoy the idea, briefly, before going back downstairs to supper.Reuse content