Warning: reading about headlice will cause itching.
Every summer, my friends and I would become inseparable. We would have marathon sleepovers, bouncing from house to house. We would monopolise each living room with a tangle of pillows and mattresses before falling asleep curled around each other like a whole drawer of spoons.
We shared meals and clothes and sun cream, which was nice. We shared hairbrushes and pillows and towels, which was not.
One summer, we noticed that our heads were itchy. Not in an absent, scratch-and-it’s-over way. But more like, I-want-to-dig-my-nails-into-my-scalp-and-gouge-out-entire-chunks-of-flesh sort of way.
In a hugely unsurprising turn of events, we all had head lice.
It was impossible to identify who patient zero was. Not only did we all have lice, but all of our siblings had lice too. As did an unsuspecting and completely horrified parent or two.
Looking back, I realise this is the closest I have ever come to being part of an epidemic. Lice were everywhere. All across our neighbourhood, towels, duvets, pillow cases, bed sheets, dresses and t-shirts were washed twice and hung to dry in the harsh Australian sun. Finally, the hole in the ozone layer could do something useful for us.
Hairbrushes and combs were left to soak for hours in the sink. Ha! Take that lice.
Cowboy hats (they were in that year, don’t judge me) and miscellaneous sporting caps were thrown out in a bug-induced panic.
Next we assembled, like some sort of Ghostbusters team, in my next door neighbours’ garden. We came armed with nit combs, loo roll and a bottle of conditioner each.
We sat in our bikinis, one behind the other, like a weird mix of a beauty pageant and a conga line. The process began. Apply entire bottle of conditioner to the person in front’s head. Comb a section of hair. Wipe comb on loo roll. Say ‘ew.’ Comb a section of hair. Wipe comb on loo roll. Say ‘ew.’ Comb a section of hair. Wipe comb on loo roll. Say ‘ew.’
We were like a colony of less sophisticated monkeys, simultaneously thrilled and disgusted by the entire ecosystem going on in our lemon-bleached locks. We dispelled hundreds, if not thousands of lice from our heads along with alarmingly thick chunks of hair.
The idea was floated that we should just shave our heads and be done with it. We all murmured assent. But we knew none of us was ever going to part with our hair, even if it was so infested with lice that we could have named one after each member of the Kardashian/Hadid/Jenner clan going back five generations and still have plenty of lice left over.
Instead, we carried on with our grooming in companionable silence that was occasionally interrupted with a ‘Woah! Look how big this one is!’ and we would pass the impressively large lice around like some sort of repulsive trophy.
It wasn’t a particularly glamorous experience and if I could have avoided it, I probably would have. But I’ve done some reading on ‘grooming behaviour‘ and Wikipedia (don’t judge my sources either) tells me that an animal helping another animal clean itself is a form of social bonding that helps build trust. And I kind of know what they mean.
It’s that same feeling as when your mum paints the fingernails on your right hand, or your friend braids your hair. That feeling of someone else loving you enough to want to take care of you. And on the flip side, you trusting them enough to not screw it up.
The lice went away eventually, as lice generally do. But the friends? Well, they’re stuck with me forever.
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Image: Project Mc²