Tim Dowling: is the monster in the mirror how people see me?

About four years ago, my wife bought a cheap full-length mirror and left me to put it up. The frame had four fixing points which, when screwed into place, caused the thin glass to buckle and warp slightly. The peculiar geometry of its surface makes it, by some margin, the most unflattering mirror I have ever looked into.

Our bedroom is a converted attic, with not much wall space to accommodate a 4ft mirror. It went the only place it could go: next to the window on my side of the bed. Every morning as my feet touch the floor, I am greeted by a full seated portrait of myself as a misshapen monster: stubby-legged, hollow-chested, with puffy eyes and a runaway beard dotted in white, like a hawthorn bush coming into bloom.

“Is this how people see me?” I say, lifting my spindly grasshopper arms.

“Why are you looking in that mirror?” my wife says. “Never look in that mirror.”

“I have no choice,” I say. “Why are you awake?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “After all the barking.”

“I look like Dracula,” I say. “No, wait – like Dracula’s dad.”

“We need to do something,” she says.

My wife is referring to the problematic friendship between the dog and the fox. Ever since they made a standing appointment to gambol and bark in the garden at 3am every night, their antics have imperilled the sleep of a whole neighbourhood. We tried shutting the door to the kitchen, where the cat flap is, but with three twentysomething sons in the house, this has proved unfeasible. “Don’t leave the kitchen door open”, like “Don’t leave the milk out” and “Don’t cook after midnight”, is a plea destined to be ignored.

We tried shutting the dog in our bedroom all night, but it whined and scratched at the door, and even then I could still hear the fox calling out from the darkness in a convincing imitation of a dog’s bark – our dog’s bark.

“Go to sleep,” my wife said. “It’s not our problem.”

“Yes it is,” I said. “The neighbours will think that’s our dog.”

Sometimes, after I wash and dress my loathsome form, I stop by the downstairs loo, home to the most flattering mirror in the house. The view is tightly cropped; the light soft and indirect, filtered through a dusty leaded window that communicates with the cupboard where the washing machine is. When I look into it, I think: it’s not so bad – let’s stay in here.

Later that evening, I leave my office shed after a long Zoom meeting where I was confronted with an image of myself that was more upstairs than downstairs mirror. I find my wife pushing a big black case across the kitchen floor, while the dog watches.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“Blocking the cat flap,” she says. “I’ve got to do something.”

“What about the cat?” I say.

“Screw the cat,” my wife says. The dog barks.

“Perhaps you could find some friends among your own kind,” I say to the dog. The dog looks up at me.

“It’s not that I disapprove,” I say. This isn’t true: I think it’s unnatural. The dog barks.

“I mean, I like the fox,” I say. This is also untrue: I don’t like the fox. The dog barks again.

“Shut up,” my wife says.

“There’s a harmonium in that case,” I say.

“You never play it,” she says.

The next morning we come down to find the harmonium case rolled aside.

“That’s impossible,” my wife says.

“Nothing is impossible,” I say. I’ve just had a quick look at myself in the downstairs mirror, and it’s alarming how charming I feel.

“Did you hear the dog last night?” the middle one says, walking in behind us.

“No,” my wife says.

“Barking really loud,” he says. “I had to come down.”

“But how could the dog move the case?” my wife says.

“I moved the case,” he says.

“Why?” she says.

“Because the dog was barking at it!” he says. “I had to let her out and then let her back in, at 4am,” he says. My wife looks at me.

“Problem solved,” I say.