Pete and me kept shtum about dreaded nit-lady

FOR us city-born vaccies, 1939 s move to the country meant plenty of new experiences. For sheer, shock-horror few of them rivalled the nit-lady. Fellow-vaccy Pete Foster and me stared at each other in bafflement the first time class was told to assemble

FOR us city-born vaccies, 1939's move to the country meant plenty of new experiences.

For sheer, shock-horror few of them rivalled the nit-lady.

Fellow-vaccy Pete Foster and me stared at each other in bafflement the first time class was told to assemble in the village school's hall for the nit-lady after morning playtime.

"What's that?" I said. "Dunno," replied Pete.

Village boy Fatty Carruthers stunned us from the desk behind by solemnly advising: "It's when us all gets fleas off others."

Quick on his feet, Pete muttered: "We'll hide in the dubs," but had no sooner said it than teacher Mrs Taylor warned she'd be taking a nit-lady register.

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The pair of us were indignant. There'd been no such lady at East Ham's Hartley Avenue Junior. Nobody there had nits. At playtime our dismay increased when others repeated Fatty's forecast. We glared in distaste at our scruffiest classmates.

Amiable Harry Hitchman, often sockless, was happy having his thick mop eyed closely.

The Buggey boys, noted drop-of-hat scrappers, were eager to get it on with Pete and me after catching us staring hard at their suggestively close-shaven barnets.

We hastily backed off, but Pete confided: "They do that if there's fleas!" Like it proved it.

Nit-lady, grim-faced, was equipped with a small table, disinfectant-filled enamel bowl, short two-edged comb like our dog Sam's one, and a flat wooden ruler.

Rubber-gloved, she gave each head a thorough rake back and forth. Not every time between heads did comb visit bowl. It did for us, though, and at the subsequent dinner hour we hurriedly washed out the powerful smell under the playground taps.

Freckle-faced Pete, head under running water, squinted sideways at me and spluttered: "Do fleas swim?"

Both of us were sure that we had been infested by a "country cousin". And they felt as certain we'd done that to them.

"Never had no nits afore you Londoners," they said bitterly.

They had alleged the same about swear-words, a charge likely to have more substance than the one about fleas.

Fatty added to our alarm by asking if we'd noticed nit-lady's ruler.

"She whacks 'em with that," he vouchsafed sombrely. It made sense, if unedifying.

After all, what else could a nit-lady do with any found hopping off her comb? Splat! Gotcher!

Pete and me could have spent that dinner-hour getting into fights over the slights directed at London vaccies.

Wisely, we occupied it carefully, searching each other's wet bonces like preening lemurs.

Today, I wonder if those vaccy jibes were near the truth, because nit-lady's visits tailed-off in direct relation to the considerable numbers of Londoners going back home; the thinking being, presumably taking their fleas with them.

Pete's mum was a national paper journalist (if he'd a dad I never heard of it) and Pete had written to her about nit-lady.

On her next visit she regaled us, in a rich contralto, with a rendering of the Song of the Flea, musical joke.

That learned lady must have been much disturbed over the very basic education her son was getting at the village school, which was probably why Pete suddenly went home mid-war. Best mate, gone!

Before then we'd learned to keep quiet about nit-lady visits.

For when I'd casually mentioned that first ever one at teatime that day, foster-aunt leaped into action like a scalded cat, rushing to the kitchen and getting all three Primuses on the go.

To her, nit-lady equalled immediate bath for me. No matter if it wasn't a Friday night.

The lump of cake I always smuggled to Sam from tea I for once had to swallow myself.

Nothing would persuade Sam out from his box under the kitchen table to where he'd fled, believing the noise the galvanised bath made being brought in from the shed was thunder.

All the clobber I'd worn to school went into the bath, too, after me.

The worst of it was not being allowed out to go chasing, newly hot-bathed, about the village and get a cold.

A whole summer's evening skylarking lost.

The same befell Pete and thereafter we shut well up about the dreaded nit-lady.

By her job's very nature, she was never popular among us.

But I guess it at least always ensured her of a seat to herself on the bus.

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