The Louse Hunter

You have to be a dedicated louse hunter to build a collection as useful as this. The rule is, don’t keep anything that doesn’t work. It may look beautiful, it may be handy for drilling herb seeds but if you can’t catch anything with it, bathroom bin it.

The basic design of a nit comb is near perfection – tight tines and something to hold – and they have been found in among tomb goods destined for the afterlife  next to Egyptian mummies dating back thousands of years (well, it wouldn’t do to be itchy for eternity would it) and in ancient caves excavated in Israel dating back to the 1st century BC.

Fashioned from various types of ivory or wood, they have also been recovered from shipwrecks, including that of the Mary Rose, Henry IIIV’s beloved yet ill-fated warship. Rats, scurvy, Spaniards and head lice – those were the days!

If I ever see a nit comb that purports to be different to all the rest, I treat it with suspicion. Afterall, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

First out of my cup, the wide-toothed is arguably the most important comb in the collection. No, it doesn’t capture any beasts in that long grass  – not intentionally anyway – but it does, with the lascivious help of conditioner, eradicate those initial tangles that make the job of  the louse hunter so problematic. I mean, those tears! Those threats! That hatred on both sides of the battle..

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Lily Says…

Today, three beautiful teenage girls are lounging around talking about getting nits. Lily says, “My mum once counted a hundred head lice off my head in just fifteen minutes!” The other two find this outrageous and gasp, hands clapped in disgust to their lipticked mouths. “And then,” Lily continues, “she made me bend down and sit for an hour with my head in a bucket of vinegar!” And the three of them absolutely explode with laughter at the ridiculous image this conjures. They are still shedding tears ten minutes later. I am still giggling too, but more out of disbelief. That someone so very lovely and intelligent could have a parent so very ill-informed.

Can the Fleas Come Too?

Why not take the whole family on holiday, insects and all? C’mon, you aren’t telling me you haven’t shuffled around a Super U in Northern France wondering what the difference between ‘shampooing’ and ‘apres-shampooing’ (apart from the apres) is. Given that the price of the latter is often double the former, you’d safely assume that the after gunk is conditioner. It is. But not as we know it.

I never thought I’d hear myself say how lucky we are to have the supermarkets we do in England, though you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve made it a rule of life that I will never cross the threshold of a Tescos, even during a nit emergency. And for the French translation of that, read Carrefour – it even uses the same colours and now they have relaunched themselves, having eaten up all the darling Champions, they have unleashed the concept of 3 for 2 on the French public, where une was perfectly sufficient for centuries.

But we are lucky because we get a whole aisle of conditioners to choose from, whereas the French get precisely two bottles of apres shampooing. And the one you choose to put in your ‘chariot’ (I love that though – we should adopt it instead of trolley. Bring me my chariot! Or, crikey, she’s off her chariot..), is mysteriously inept at the business of de-tangling, ergo: aiding the business of removing nits and lice once you get back to the gite.

But then if you decide to go for the chemical route, who is brave enough to face those porcelain pharmacists in their spike heeled court shoes and laboratory coats that guard the pristine, minimalist chemist shops where narry a furry hot water bottle cover nor novelty baby bib can you find? What is French for headlice anyway? Do you mime it? Do you show them your child’s head? In front of the queue.. Voila!!

Once, in a Dutch town away from the perfect English speaking tourist route, I was forced into an apoteek to ask for something for kleine betjes. They all took a step backwards behind the counter. Though that could have been the shock of my accent.

And once the product is secured, do you understand the intructions? No, really? I have been that ‘soldat’ and at dix bleedin’ euros, the little blighters from blighty remained resolutely stuck in my children’s hair. In fact, I swear it increased their libido and the kids came home with a kilo of creatures in their follicular luggage.

Have comb, will travel. I have combed in restrooms, on boats, in courtyards and on beaches and you have to agree that nothing beats the thrill of NOT finding any live ones or eggs, with a large Campari in your free hand. Nothing.

When Was Your First Time?

I have an image of my youngest sister in my (nit) head, unkempt as a feral kitten, mute til she was five (she couldn’t get a word in edgewise with four older siblings & umpteen adults all over the house), with a stinking chemical potion simmering on her head. I remember thinking, ha ha. I’m so glad that’s not me. Until my mother beckoned me into the bathroom to take a turn. In those days, there were no niceties with a nit comb. If you got that brown envelope from school it meant the nit nurse had spoken (albeit discreetly) and my mum, squeamish about creepy-crawlies at the best of times, applied the regulation sheep-dip without hesitation.

And that stuff reeked so much it howled. What did they put in it? Napalm? It was treatment of the herd, regardless of whether there were any signs of life in any other familial thatch and it was the same when she came home with worms. I can still taste the warm blackcurrant mix in the paper cup we all had to gag down. To this day I can’t smell let alone drink Ribena without wanting to retch. Vile beverage.

My friend Alice said her first time was ten years ago when her eldest daughter, then aged six, came home from school with the standard generic note about a reported case of infestation. She gave her little head the once over, spotted nothing and forgot all about it. Two weeks later she said there were headlice practically abseiling off the six year old’s eyebrows. The kid was teeming – it was a veritable louse circus with insects swinging off her hair like they were on a trapeze.

That’s the clever thing about headlice, they are brilliant gymnasts.

When was your first time?

Ostrich Eggs

Not a nit

Richard, aka Bugman Jones (think Indiana but with an insect net instead of a bullwhip), told me he found an ostrich egg in Dulwich Woods last week. Not your usual addition to the school nature table, you’ll agree. In fact, a startlingly unlikely exhibit next to the mortified stag beetle and chestnut leaf. One egg – whole forest. The analogy is obvious to me. One nit – whole head of hair. But where as that stray ostrich egg is definitely not going to hatch out into a six foot bird with comedy feet, the mystery of how it came to be there up in the woods is both baffling and exciting. Not so the louse egg in the head of hair. One egg will hatch and it will wreak havoc as relatively effectively as a flock of ostriches let loose on the landscape. One egg will not disappear of its own accord. And, there is no exciting mystery whatsoever as to how that nit got there. It was laid. By a headlouse. That stepped off someone’s head. And, of course, there is never just one egg, there are always lots.

Throughout my existence as a parent, I have battled headlice. The fight against infestation has consumed hours and hours of my life. I have combed and cried and watched back-to-back Julie Andrews movies until I’ve screamed (no, it is not a jolly bloody holiday with Mary any more). I have fished through my children’s heads at bus stops, in traffic jams and on beaches. I have come to know my enemy well. Curiously, I have come to respect its tenacity. Headlice have been with us for thousands of years and are here to stay, especially if we parents sit back and pretend they will go away if we do nothing. When it comes to nits, you cannot make like an ostrich and bury your head in the sand.