I think my shoes are somewhere in those bushes.
So when I was eleven we moved to Barbados. There, my mother worked with a lady from Martinique whose niece was my age and they thought it would be rather nice for us to have exchange visits to expand our linguistic and cultural knowledge.
Claudine was instructed to write to me and introduce herself. She wrote that her mother was a housewife and her father a labourer. The Northern Socialist was delighted. My mother less so. She packed lots of old shorts and t-shirts in case I was needed on the land. She put some food in, too.
Claudine and her mother met me at the airport. Claudine was lanky, silent and pale. Her mother was charming - blade-thin and chainsmoking as she led me to their huge Mercedes. We drove into the hills of the island and turned off down a densely-wooded track. Mme LeChef explained very slowly that this was an avocado, sugar cane and banana plantation. She pointed out a series of small mud huts, 'tomorrrrrow, yes, in ze morning, zat iz where bread comes.' I offered to fetch it, as that is what the French kids in my textbook did. I don't think she heard me. Claudine didn't say a word. We drove for forty minutes through the plantation. I worried that I would get lost fetching the bread, and wasn't sure I was ready to live in a mud hut for a week.
The car drew up outside a Great Big House. I was taken inside and introduced to a lady they told me would be my 'Bonne.' Good at what, I wondered? It transpired - unpacking my pathetic clothes, running my bath, splashing cologne on my arms and cheeks, brushing my hair. The LeChefs owned this massive plantation, and I had been briefed to expect a week on a kibbutz. My bedroom at home had curling posters of Scott Baio; Claudine's was lined in charcoal sketches of ruffled old-fashioned children and oil paintings of castles.
I had stepped back into another age. The family, I understood much later, had owned the plantations for centuries and during the French Revolution, had fled France to avoid the guillotine, being about as far from the solid proletarian stock of my father's dreams as you could get. The house was enormous, with wide verandahs on three sides where we had breakfast and drinks before dinner. It had no kitchen, but instead three huts nearby housed fire and range and ice-boxes. I don't think I have ever eaten as well as I did there, nor seen so many servants. One behind each chair at dinner, another tucked me into bed, yet another brought me a tiny cup of ambrosial chocolat before I went to sleep.
Over the next few days, the house filled up, thank God, because Claudine and I, we discovered, couldn't stand the sight of each other. Claudine's two older brothers arrived from school in France and a French Count and his companion came to stay. The Count was 19 and the ugliest man I had ever seen. His companion was a dream. They both thought I was hysterical, stuffed crossly into Claudine's frock for dinner and running barefoot in the day. The Count's face was horribly scarred - his father had wolves which had attacked him as a child and they had done a skin graft from his thigh which left him very disfigured. He was very kind though, and used to make a point of kissing my hot little hand whenever we met.
My favourite thing, though, was the two brothers. 14 and 15, they had the best toys - motorbikes, speedboats, waterskis. They told me in no uncertain terms that I could go along with them only if I spoke French. They were even more crap at English than their mother. I learned French in about two days, along with how to lean on an uphill winding motorbike ride. Barefoot. How to waterski. How to swear in French. Really badly. I taught them bad words in return; anything to avoid having to spend time with Claudine. I never told my parents that bit. She, by contrast, stayed in her room putting on lipstick and changing her clothes.
Another time, I spent an afternoon in Fort-de-France with her ancient Grandmother, who made me translate a whole boxful of old letters she and her own mother had been exchanging with the British Royal Family for decades, trying to get their help in having their French chateau and property returned to them. The letters smelled old and some had crumbled away in their envelopes. She gave me tea. I wore shoes for that visit. I wrote a letter in English to some equerry or other in London asking again for the Queen's help in returning their lands. I didn't tell my dad about that, either.