A Job for Life

Even though, as the children grow older the instances of head lice infestation get fewer, the fear never quite leaves you. If my son so much as puts an index finger to the back of his neck for an innocent scratch, I’m onto him, perusing his parting like a rapt gibbon. Which of course, he hates.There can be little worse than the ignominy of having your mum nit check your best Justin Bieber barnet, especially when you are taller than her. And she makes you bend down.

Meanwhile with my teenage girls, we can be having a perfectly easy going hair related conversation about, I don’t know say, Charles Worthington versus John Frieda and who would win in a wrestling match, but if I casually drop the subject of a quick head check into the ring, doors are slammed harder than lycra bums on a smack down.

The mounting superfluity of my role as nit finder general, ergo caring parent, is evident in the handful of conditioner smeared tissues that mysteriously appear in the bathroom swing top, or I’ll find my best steel comb forlorn on the side of the shower. While I’m sad that my babes will soon no longer need me to de-flea them, I am relieved that one of the longest, most trying episodes of parenthood is nearly done.

So there I was drying off after a nice peaceful, childless swim the other day, grateful that when one of the toddlers roaming the changing room while their mums chatted distractedly caught his finger in the locker door he was smashing open and shut over and over again, it wasn’t my responsibility. Turning to the big mirror with happy impunity, a small boy screaming in the background of my reflection, I began to brush my wet hair when all of a sudden something small and insect-like fell onto the mottled formica counter in front of me.

With suspiciously approriate timing, my near-sight has begun to waver as my parental usefulness diminishes but as I squinted, I wasn’t convinced that I hadn’t dislodged a hitchiking louse. Afterall, I only discovered I had nits one summer in France when I innocently combed my hair out over a broad, white glossed window ledge while enjoying the view, only to look down and find three insects looking dazed on the paintwork.

Self-consciously, I glanced over my shoulder at the toddler being comforted by a surfeit of concerned mums (certain locker doors having been closed long after the horse had bolted) before finding a tissue, licking it to ensure adhesion (yuck) and smothering the errant creature. I then smuggled the thing into my cardigan (that word alone describes my transformation into middle, ahem, age) pocket to scrutinise later. I left the sports centre in haste.

Later, in the privacy of my own well-lit living room, heart pumping, prescribed reading glasses plonked on my nose, I carefully opened up the tissue. There nestled in the bleached Kleenex fibres, was the unmistakeable menacing presence of, a speck of navy lint. The same colour as the aforementioned cardi. Safely transported all the way from Crystal Palace. Nerk.

But like I said, the fear never leaves you. And while my kids may no longer require my comb-wielding services, I am an expert aunty to a three year old and an eight year old, prime infestation territory. Further more, with the publication of The Little Book of Nits by Bloomsbury on May 24th, I like to think that I can still be of use in spreading the word. Also available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs…



Even Hogwarts has a lice infestation

It must be high up on the anxiety list of any headmaster — the last thing the school needs is another infestation…

It’s been some time since my son (now 7) came home with the usual nit letter. I’m not complacent though, I’m sure it will happen again (several times probably) before he leaves them behind and moves on to secondary school.

It is usually in primary school (age up to 12) that children suffer head lice most often. It’s nothing to do with physical size, or childhood body chemistry. It’s everything to do with childish behaviour — unabashed huddling and cuddling. Boys and girls are equally exuberant in the playground, and equally enthusiastic as they snuggle up together to pore over the shared school table to read, or write or chat. Long gone are the stern days when individual children sat at single well-spaced desks, staring in silence at the blackboard at the front of the class.

Two things happen when children go off to secondary school. First, if they have suffered head lice in the past, their families may have have got the hang of control by now. Secondly, they begin to take responsibility for their own grooming. Combing is still the easiest and best way to control head lice, and even without a fine-toothed comb, brushing and combing can still dislodge, damage or remove head lice enough to break or prevent infestation.

Head louse infestations in secondary school are few and far between, but that still doesn’t stop head lice being used to theatrical effect. Even Hogwarts has an outbreak.

The Harry Potter Puppet Pals have become a bit of an internet sensation, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that lice should invade their table-top version of Hogwarts. Weasley has an affliction.

Ron Weasley has lice.

Dumbledore gets it right: “Lice are magical creatures”.

Indeed, they are, but I’m not sure about Hagrid’s folksy treatment. His name is not, after all, synonymous with grooming.

The mayonnaise might work though….

You’ll be wanting a certificate with that then

It was the mischievousness of the challenge I appreciated most. “What’s that, then?” said the Dad, over the fuzzy head of his son, as they passed over the small plastic tube with bug inside.
There’s nothing unusual in this questioning behaviour from complete strangers, it happens to me all the time. But at the Nunhead Cemetery Open Day people are queuing up to ask. We are often mobbed at the Bug Hunt stall; 350 visitors is not unusual. The instructions are simple:
1. Collect a container (one of the hundreds of empty hummus or yogurt cartons I collect throughout the year)
2. Collect some bugs, as you walk around this fantastic overgrown Victorian cemetery, from flowers, under logs, resting on leaves, they’re all over the place
3. Bring them back to the stall and have your finds identified by the Bugman (me)
4. Collect a certificate, handwritten, with your name, and what bugs you found, scientific names and all.
It’s fantastic fun; the kids uncover some unusual things, every year, and then they rush off to tell their parents about the disgusting beasts they’ve found.
This time, however, it was the parent who handed over the container. Inside it, clinging on to a few hair strands, was a head louse. I had to smile.
I like to think he was impressed when I immediately recognized Pediculus capitis. I, too, was impressed at his calm, unflustered acceptance of his children’s nuisance parasites.
I can’t quite remember what the son’s wild-caught insect captures might have been. But I wrote a certificate for the Dad too.