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Hadley Dunn was in Switzerland by accident, really. She'd never imagined that she could study abroad, thinking it was only for fast-tongued linguists, or almond-eyed Parisian pinups, the kind of girls who smoked cigarettes through pouted lips and drank their coffee black. Yet one moment, on a featureless February day, the idea came to her. She might have dismissed it as an idle daydream, but it planted itself with inexplicable solidity and continued to grow.
She had arrived for her seminar early and noticed someone flicking through a brochure for L'Institut Vaudois before class. It was Carla, a girl with a brisk bob and studious oblongs for glasses. She'd talked over Hadley in the last lecture, interrupting her as she'd tried to get to the bottom of the professor's obtuse requests for further reading.
"Are we paired with Lausanne, then?" Hadley asked, as she took the seat next to her.
"Paired? This isn't a school exchange. There's an understanding between our two universities and the English departments. They'll swap a student, just one a year. And it's pronounced 'Low-zan' not 'Law-sahn.'"
"Low-zan. Why only one?"
Carla shrugged, and her mouth pursed.
"No idea, but I can't imagine many people will apply. Switzerland's a really expensive place to live."
"Oh, is it in Switzerland? Cool. Can I see?" asked Hadley, leaning over so that she could get a better look. The picture showed an important-looking building made of glass and chrome, set before a lawn that was neat as a bowling green and fell all the way to the edge of a great lake.
"Don't you live at home still?" said Carla.
"Yes," said Hadley.
Behind the building ran a band of spiked mountains. They were ice-white against the blue of the sky, and looked as though someone had painted them in as an afterthought, a flash of inspiration from a stagehand. Hadley took the brochure from Carla and inspected it closer. Surely no university in the world could be ringed by views like that.
"So, this is just your nearest university? You didn't choose it, as such?"
Hadley finally tore herself from the page and looked up.
"Of course I chose it," she said. "Anyway, what does that have to do with anything?"
As her school friends had headed north and south, east and west, Hadley had stayed where she was. She'd enrolled at her local university, only a short bus ride from where she lived with her parents and little brother in Tonridge. Sam had arrived unexpectedly four years earlier, a bundle of sweetness, hilarity and unending demands. Her mum's laughter lines ran deeper than ever these days, and her dad's hair had turned a heavily seasoned salt-and-pepper. If she'd left home, they would have felt her absence acutely. Who would have shifted the peas on Sam's plate so that they made a smiley face, or helped start a snail farm in the bottom of a bucket? Not to mention all the babysitting. When Hadley read the letters from her far-flung friends, she saw between the lines. For all the tales of late-night fun, skipped lectures, easy love and easier lust, there were stacks of unwashed dishes in communal sinks, inane conversation over squares of toast, and life lived in an all-seeing goldfish bowl; she told herself these weren't the things to tempt her away from home in the name of supposed freedom, and most of the time she believed it.
"I'm just saying," said Carla, "you have to be adventurous to study abroad."
"It'd be an amazing adventure."
"And it doesn't suit everyone."
Hadley suppressed a smile. "You mean it wouldn't suit me?" she said.
She might not have yearned for a wider world, but that didn't mean she never wondered about it. She observed the other students, the ones who drove themselves to campus at the start of term, their backseats loaded with bent lamps and potted palms, or walked from the train station, weighted by rucksacks, arms still tanned from some foreign adventure; these people seemed to blow in from another world entirely, and they struck her as curious. They seemed to be already fully formed, passing effortlessly from school, through university and then into the rest of their freewheeling lives. Beside them, Hadley felt the novice, her lack of experience as glaring as a white sheet. She had an easy faith, however, that exciting things would happen to her one day. And when that day came, she'd be ready.
Behind her glasses Carla's eyes were mud-brown and unblinking. She didn't answer Hadley's question; instead she gave a prim little smile and clicked her fingers for the brochure. Hadley stared at her. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. She handed the brochure back reluctantly, and Carla returned it to her bag. The professor, a crowlike man who always smelled of egg sandwiches and old coffee, sloped into the room and fumbled with his briefcase at the front of the class. Hadley opened a can of Coke and settled back into her seat. He began to talk about the Victorians and the Industrial Revolution, but she was hardly listening. She was thinking about the mountains, and what it would be like to live so close to them, and whether they'd make any sound at all, because how could something that massive loom silently? Wouldn't there be cracks and whispers and whistling winds? Would you grow used to it, that stolid, eternal presence, and carry on with life as if it was ordinary? A different kind of ordinary, but ordinary nonetheless. More likely you'd spend all day gazing skyward, happy as a mayfly.
A week later, just as the department secretary was counting the last of the applications to study abroad, Hadley tossed hers into the pile.
"The deadline was 5:00 p.m., I'm afraid," she said, glancing up. Her expression was unreadable. The shutters were drawn over her eyes.
"Seriously?" said Hadley. "But it's only half past."
"Rules are rules."
Hadley sank her head onto the countertop. The secretary shifted her cup of tea and carried on flicking through the paperwork, first extracting her form as though it were a weed.
"It's just, I've spent the last week deciding if I wanted to apply or not," Hadley said, "I never thought anything could be so exciting and terrifying at the same time."
In front of her the papers were still being shuffled, stacks of neat handwriting, no doubt full of professions of suitability and promises of exceptional academic achievement. Carla had been wrong about no one wanting to apply.
"I thought that there was no way I could afford it," she said, "but then I found out that there were grants available, so that made me rethink everything." Hadley laid her hand on the secretary's arm and felt her flinch beneath her light touch. "Please," she went on, "I mean, I suddenly realized that I really do want to go. I probably won't get picked, but I want to at least try. I filled out the form as quickly as I could. Look, the Wite-Out is still drying."
There was a moment's silence. Along the hall, doors were slamming, signaling the end of the day.
"What if I just slip itin to the pile?" said Hadley. "We can pretend it's been there all along."
"Oh, quickly, then," the secretary said without looking up.
Hadley flung her arms up and leaned over the counter, offering a messy sort of hug.
The older lady stayed as stiff as a rod. "Don't make me change my mind," she said.
Three weeks later Hadley received a letter, of no more than four or five typewritten lines, telling her that her application had been successful. It took a moment for the news to sink in. Just like that, she'd swapped a year at home for a year abroad. A path had been laid out for her, and she had been happy enough staying on it; would so sudden and dramatic a swerve change the course of Fate? She didn't rush to accept her place. She wondered if she'd been right to want it.
It was her mum who finally convinced her to go. They were washing up together one night after dinner when Had-ley stopped and stared out the kitchen window. The view was of the house next door, line after line of perfect brickwork. The pointed tops of a wooden fence broke the rhythm at neat intervals. Her mum squeezed her hand.
"Sorry, I was miles away," said Hadley, with a smile. She returned her attention to the dirty dishes.
"We never want to hold you back," her mum said.
"But you don't____" she began.
"Hadley, look at me. Sometimes I don't know what your dad and I would have done without you. But Sam starts school in September. Everything changes."
"I know. I've thought about that."
"There's a whole world out there," she said, looking into her eyes with pearly intent. "Perhaps it's time to take it. Take it with both hands, and don't regret anything for a minute."
Sometimes it turned out that people delivered their most important words when they were wearing splattered aprons, their hands awash with soapsuds.
At the airport her mum pressed her into a tight hug, her hair snarling in Hadley's earrings, their tears switching cheeks. Sam handed her a scribbled drawing of a stick girl and a roly-poly snowman with a string of podgy mountains in the background; Hadley dropped a kiss on it before folding it carefully away. Her dad insisted on carrying her cases, wanting to be useful until the last. He promised that they would save up for a visit in the summer, at which point Hadley's mum broke into a song from The Sound of Music. Thereafter followed a deliberately chirpy argument about whether the film was set in Austria or Switzerland, and Hadley's dad admitted to a crush on Julie Andrews. In the end the last boarding call for Geneva rattled over the speakers, and she knew she had to go. She turned one last time to catch her family waving vigorously. She had the distinct feeling that she was breaking some small thing, a binding thread that would stretch tauter and tauter until it gave up, just because it had to. She waved and waved, then pelted for the plane.
Once in her seat, Hadley took a breath and sank back into the silence of the skies. She turned the name Lausanne over and over, and it rolled across her tongue like a new kiss. It was her secret city, for hardly anyone had heard of it. Even Carla had admitted as much at the end of term, as she'd wished Hadley bon voyage with surprising grace. Then she had ruined it, in one deft move. "All I can think," she said, "is that perhaps it's not as nice as it looks."
It was late afternoon, and the September sun was still burning brightly, filling the train carriage with summer's last light. From Geneva to Lausanne the railway tracks followed the length of Lac Léman's shore. Hadley caught flashes of glistening water and saw the purple outlines of mountains rising behind. To the other side were sweeping vineyards and fields of swollen pumpkins. Now and again she saw a boxy château with closed shutters and high gates, and hillsides peppered with chalets, their pointed roofs and wooden verandas making them look like children's toys.
She regarded her fellow passengers with interest; a young backpacker with a scraggy beard was peeling an apple with a penknife; an elderly lady with a fallen beehive was sitting with a bat-eared bulldog curled in her lap; two suited business types, with the same dark sheen to their hair and their shoes, were hiding behind their newspapers. However fleeting, these were the people of her new life, and she felt drawn to each one of them. She was already gathering everything she saw, like a collector of curiosities who finds even the ordinary to be notable.
After less than an hour, the train rolled into Lausanne's station. Hadley stared at the white letters set on a blue sign. Lausanne. She had been here so many times before, if only in her imagination, that when the moment came she almost forgot to get off. She started, scrambled for her case and jumped down onto the platform. With impeccable punctuality the guard blew his whistle, and Hadley turned to watch the departing train. She imagined it continuing along the lake's shore, whipping into the mountains, spinning ever closer to the Italian border for it was bound for Milano Centrale. Other places that perhaps one day she would visit, too. She glanced again at the sign beside her, Lausanne. Already the name was more than just a collection of letters. She felt a prickle of anticipation, swiftly followed by a woollier, less distinct feeling. It was the sense that as long as she stayed just where she was, at the threshold of new experience, all would remain glorious. Nothing would ever be ruined.
The city was sizzling in the lingering heat of summer. Had-ley dutifully wore the padded jacket that had been a parting gift from her parents, and it swaddled her, making perspiration dot her brow. She resolved to buy a chicer mackintosh for the autumn, the neatly belted kind the two women were wearing who passed her in the station forecourt. They'd clattered across the marbled floor, their lips moving prettily as they said words like vraiment, absolument, exclaiming and reasserting with panache. There was something about the French language, words were never just words; they seemed to change the air around them.
On her head, Hadley wore a knitted beret. It was another gift from her parents, but closer to the mark this time. Just like one of those film stars! her mum had cried as Hadley had tried it on. She'd twirled the shorter pieces of her hair so they'd clung to her cheeks in sculpted fashion. "I might get it cut," she'd said, "c'est plus chic, comme ga." She'd braved the hairdresser on the high street, with a picture torn from a magazine clasped in her hand. It had been the girl from the film Breathless-A Bout de Souffle. When she'd gotten home, Sam had thrown himself on the floor laughing and said she looked like a boy. But she'd felt light and mischievous. It was a haircut to cause trouble in, and to smile about it afterward.