The Hong Kong Science Museum got into a spot of bother this summer after parents took to social media to rant about children becoming infested with head lice after donning helmets while playing with one of the interactive engineering exhibits. The poor museum staff scrambled to refute the allegations. And I sympathised.
Hats are to nits what Uber is to late night revellers: they get them from A to B quickly. And nits are to mothers what broomsticks were to suspected witches in the 1600s: they herald instant elimination from contact lists and banishment to social Siberia.
I know. I’ve been there. To Social Siberia. It is a cold, lonely place where nobody asks you for coffee, or invites your children to birthday parties.
At first it was funny. It began with an innocuous scratch of the head. One which I ignored. (Well, you do. Don’t you?)
But – inevitably – one itchy head turned into two and before I knew it my three children were among the 42 at school that were tarred and feathered in public and sent home with notes prescribing various toxic treatments that should be used immediately or the child was at risk of temporary expulsion.
The notes actually carried a much weightier message: you are an unfit mother and social pariah. Since I was responsible for 14 per cent of the untouchables, I was more unfit than most.
Nits are extremely easy to acquire (they say of adults, put two heads together and you come up with a good idea; put two children’s heads together and you come up with nits), but they’re not easy to deal with. They are persistent little blighters who don oxygen masks the moment they hear you pop open the lid on the first bottle in your arsenal of lice eradication ointment.
And then, after a feast of blood, they nestle down in the soft hair of your child’s scalp and go to sleep. (Oxygen masks in situ.)
You quickly ascertain – having exposed your little darling to more carcinogens in 24 hours than a smoker in a lifetime – that the stuff doesn’t work and resort to numerous home remedies (not, in fact, unlike the witches of the 1600s).
I began with a recipe from a similarly unfit mother: apple cider vinegar and olive oil. I had no apple cider vinegar, only wine vinegar, but assumed that by (reluctantly) using my best cold-pressed extra, extra virgin olive oil, I’d make up for that omission.
The children objected strongly to the sting and the stink (almost as strongly as I objected to using oil reserved for special occasions) and even more to the plastic bags I wrapped their heads in. This, they assured me, was not a good look, and please don’t take any photos, mum. (Though I was sorely tempted, a picture of “treatment in progress” would be proof of the pudding. Or perhaps – more correctly – tossed, dressed salad?).
Subsequent recommended combing of smelly tresses with a nit comb (as advocated by nitpickers, aka proper mothers) did not present anything David Attenborough would have got excited about: no lice, no nymphs, no nits. Just handfuls of hair. And lots of howling.
The next day we moved on to recipe two. Soak hair in vinegar which, apparently, detaches eggs that lice have glued to hair with their spit (charming). Rinse and apply oil (did not specify, so used what was left in chip pan) “to every strand”. This is difficult. And time-consuming. And boring. Then comb. Result? Handfuls of hair, very red scalps, lots of howling.
Growing frantic, I resorted to a remedy I found on the internet: apply considerable amounts of conditioner and comb within 20 minutes. The conditioner, I read, stuns the lice, briefly. The idea is to comb them out before they pick themselves up, shake themselves off, recover their senses, grip and oxygen masks. This treatment, although less smelly than the others, didn’t yield much. Except handfuls of hair. And howling.
In the end, I aped our four-legged ancestors and picked painstakingly through the children’s hair, strand by strand, extracting everything that bore passing resemblance to foreign bodies: flakes of dandruff, remains of lunch or – indeed – the odd lurking nit. Dazed, confused and still clutching its oxygen mask.
And then I sent them back to school. The children. Not the nits. I hope.