When I am on a train pulling into the station, I always notice the people watching their reflections. They invariably use the 'mirror face'. It is the expression we pull when examining ourselves - a kind of stern, nonchalant scowl. It is not a pout - that look is reserved for when we think we are being observed by someone attractive. The mirror face is the way we think we look when we aren't smiling. It requires work, however, and is worn like a mask.
I sometimes catch people checking two angles as they try to appraise their sexy-frown. We all look better in window glass, it seems - less worn perhaps, certainly more sculpted. The same goes for mirrors in darkened restaurants.
A sunny day is altogether different. There is nowhere to hide in the shimmering noonday light, like it or not, we are nothing but glistening bags of skin. Sunglasses help, as does fancy hair - other than that, we are completely exposed.
Last weekend, my own summertime look presented a problem. It was during a date with Jenny in Covent Garden. We were in the 'Punch and Judy', an enormous bear trap of a pub, crammed with European tourists and thuggish looking men from the provinces. Jenny wanted to watch the street performers so we stood on the crowded balcony with a clutch of Kentish lads. It would be unfair to stereotype them as beer-swilling louts. They were, however, swilling beer - lots of it - and heckling the family entertainer in the piazza below.
"This is what I love about London," she said, "there's always so much going on."
Jenny was from Devon but had lived in London for three years. Still, her chit chat was peppered with the usual London cliches (the 'melting pot', the stoicism, the vastness etc.). She wanted us to celebrate the metropolis and consider how lucky we are. In an attempt to shut the conversation down, I reminded her that I grew up in London. This had the reverse effect, however, as she wanted to discuss how it feels to be from the capital (pretty unspectacular, I thought, nonetheless, I pretended to be in on some big secret).
On the balcony we fought to retain our beer sodden corner. Thankfully, the heaving portly men around us were benign. Indeed, they tried to spread frivolity, periodically bursting into lewd verse and ribbing fellow punters.
Jenny had her back to the sun, so I caught the rays full force. As we spoke they seared into my cheeks. I had forgotten my sunglasses and squinted at Jenny's conversation. It was difficult to smile, nod, and protect my eyeballs at the same time.
"This is great," Jenny said, "there's so much energy here."
A man in a flannel shirt stood on my foot. I pulled away in silence.
"Yeah, it is kind of interesting."
I kept thinking about the heat. Sweat beaded on my brow. Jenny glanced around and I quickly swept it away. She suggested we watch the juggler below. I looked on as he laid a piece of rope on the ground then commanded his audience to stay the other side of it. A man with a small child walked through the cordon, smiling. The juggler berated them over his microphone headset.
"He's funny," Jenny said.
I pushed closer to the edge as another couple squeezed onto the balcony.
"Listen," I said, "do you mind if we go inside for a bit?"
"Why? This is fun!"
She turned, and her face folded into frown.
"Hey, are you ok?"
The sweat was pouring down my face and into my eyes. My oily summer visage had morphed into the face of a swamp creature.
"Sure," I said, "I'm just really hot."
Jenny furrowed her brow, so I added,
"And I'm warm as well. Ha ha."
But she did not laugh. I was a sweat-glazed mess. In need of respite, and without a tissue, I quickly rubbed my sleeve across my forehead. A large bald headed man pushed onto the balcony with a pint in each hand. With nowhere to go, I pressed myself into the parapet. Down in the piazza the juggler began his act. He was mediocre but Jenny was engrossed, for her, the whole city was an act, a swarming circus of joy. She turned her back on me.
Our date was going nowhere. I could not operate under the glaring sun. At least in darkened restaurants I could comfortably deploy my mirror face. In the bright light of Covent Garden, no amount of head-tilting and frowning can help. Summertime in London. I hate it.