I stand behind my sister at the Queen Anne Dresser in our parent’s bedroom and see the two of us reflected back in the mirror, one tall, one short, one dark, one fair, one beautiful – to my eyes at least – the other plain.
I take a comb to my sister’s tangled mess of hair. There are clumps so twisted that the comb refuses to pass through and I must hold onto her hair by the roots before scraping at the unruly mess with the brittle red plastic comb.
My sister winces but I am so intent on the job that I do not hesitate to yank and pull.
There are scattered bits of twig and dry leaves, loose threads and bits of fluff throughout.
‘Your hair is like the bottom of a wastepaper basket,’ I say. ‘And there are old nit eggs everywhere.’ I pick at the white bulb of an egg half way along a hair shaft and scrape it off between my finger nail and thumb.
I imagine at first that these nits are dead, that they died long ago when my sister’s hair was last fumigated, but a winged nit flies out of another clump just as I lift it in readiness to start untangling.
I race down stairs to the hairdressers.
‘I need some Sm24, I say. We have a lice plague.’
There are women seated at basins along one wall of the salon. I recognise the New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, among them. Janet Frame, as a child, her flame red mop of hair dazzling in the light of a single bulb that swings overhead. Janet Frame, as she is envisaged in Jane Campion’s film of Frame’s autobiography, An Angel at my Table.
We are in some sort of bunker and the hairdresser wears a mask on her face and a cap over her head for protection. The room is full of flying nits that float in and out of the various heads of hair on the children who sit at the basins.
My scalp starts to itch.