Before the summer I was confronted by a mum in my shop sporting a long-sighted sneer as she held The Little Book of Nits at arm’s length, peered over her specs and remarked: “Ugh. Who’d want to buy a book on head lice?” Before I had the chance to compose a neutral facial expression and respond with ten reasons why the item was in fact, er.. useful, Jon – my partner at home and at work – leaned over the counter and beckoned to her. She put it down and huddled in conspiritorially.
“I’ll tell you a secret about that book,” he hissed to her.
“Ooh do,” she replied, still shuddering at the sheer ghastliness of the tawdry piece of published triviality.
He thumbed the air towards me and stage-whispered: “She wrote it.”
Our customer backed off as if she’d been infected there and then. She then blustered a bit about it not being ‘her kind of thing’, before skidaddling lickety-split.
Nits are not anybody’s ‘kind of thing’. It’s not like lager versus real ale – “Cheap mass produced beer in tins just isn’t my thing.” Or, soaps. “Eastenders just isn’t my kind of thing. Give me a storyline involving a cow’s hoof stuck in a cattle-grid any day.” There’s not even any room for indifference – “Nits? Ah, I can take ’em or leave ’em.. Prefer a good dose of scabies meself..” Or, indeed, ambivalence – “Head-lice, ho hum. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em..”
The only person on this planet that I know that has any sort of miniscule affection for them is my co-author, The Bugman. And that, I imagine, computes to little more than cheerful but grudging respect for their complete lack of a sense of inferiority.
The thing is, the beggars aren’t going to go away just because we don’t like them. I did a school event before the summer in which parents were invited to talk about the problems of head lice, to swap stories and, you know, on my part, to knock a few of the myths surrounding infection and treatment on the, um, head. This smart primary school with a mixed demographic where some of the priciest houses in London rub shoulders with some of cheapest could not muster more than a couple of parents. Meanwhile at the assembly I attended later on, their own children were there in large numbers, having a great time. Sitting cross-legged in rows. Listening like good kids. Many of them scratching like mongrels.
Summer intervened and as usual I escaped London for a month. The bookshop always seems like an alien landscape on my return, over-grown like the garden, with a raft of new titles and unfamiliar dust jackets. But the Little Book of Nits has remain sentinal by the till all through August, biding its time.
This morning a lovely mum came flying in and snatched it up delightedly with relief. The term is barely underway, the uniform still squeaky and already they’ve got a head full of fleas at home, she sighed. Yep. It’s back to school for everyone. Including those clever little nits.