The look of love

It takes a lot to make a Londoner stop and stare.

Certainly it takes more than the three rollerskaters who weaved their way rapidly through the stationary traffic at Piccadilly Circus this evening to general indifference, even though the Chinese girl was young and pretty and wore a tight red t-shirt, and their leader – a tall good-looking black man with dreadlocks – was skating backwards at speed between bumpers and wing mirrors and buses with a cocky, frightening nonchalance.

A few people, it's true, stared with amusement or disapproval, depending on their characters, at the comically small car with the comically large sound system that was playing comically bad drum'n'bass at a volume that was far too loud to be funny.

Rather more stared at the antique Pontiac that was stuck next to me in the jam. It had acres of gleaming chrome, white wall tyres, and a driver who demonstrated the unhappy talent of changing lanes at exactly the point when the lane he was committed to leaving started moving, and the lane he was joining seized up. As I nipped into the gap that he'd just vacated and accelerated away from him, I could see heads still turning to stare and stare at this polished whale of a car, the longing and envy on their faces reflected in the gleaming paintwork of this most unashamed piece of Americana.

But the champion stare of all, the most unsubtle and blatant example I have ever seen in this country, came in an earlier jam, just after Harrods and near Harvey Nick's.

A young couple were crossing the road towards me from the far side where the department stores are. He was dapper and well-dressed in a smart, fashionable suit, like an ad man. She looked like a barrister on her lunch break, in a white blouse and a severe black suit with a skirt that fell to her ankles. She had long auburn hair and was one of those people who you think from a distance are attractive, but realise as they get closer that in fact their features don't work at all. The couple held hands as they crossed the road, in the casual, comfortable way of people who were doing it because they wanted to, not because they felt the need to demonstrate anything to the world about their togetherness.

On the side of the road they were heading for was a woman with a fractious child in tow. She was in her early 40s and dressed too smart, too fashionably, as if she was trying but had tried too hard. The child was a poor fashion choice, too – it didn't seem to go with her outfit or style, and from time to time she looked at it as if it was some kind of alien interloper that had been attached to her hand when she wasn't looking. She was irritably trying to flag down occupied taxis, and looking aggrieved that they were ignoring her, when she spotted the couple as they reached the central reservation.

She stared full-on at the woman, keeping her gaze locked on as they walked towards her. The couple failed to notice anything and, as they passed by her close enough to touch, she swivelled round to follow them with her eyes, her stare tracking them like a lighthouse beam as they walked away from her towards a trattoria.

Why was she doing it? I don't know. Perhaps it was because the couple were mixed race, the girl white and the man black. Perhaps it was because they seemed to move effortlessly through the world while she, child in tow, was struggling against it. Or perhaps it was because she recognised all her efforts on her appearance had made her look worse while the girl, with no obvious effort, had transcended her discordant looks. Perhaps, simply, she envied their obvious love for each other. Whichever, I looked back for one last time as the traffic began to move again and saw that her eyes were still boring into their backs as the child tugged futilely on her hand.

It takes a lot to make a Londoner stare, but I admit to staring at her.