WHEN THE TOUR GUIDE STILL SMILES by Hannah Retallick (2nd place, Jan22)

Paris. The city of love. Eiffel Towers everywhere, couples kissing for selfies, visitors buying fridge magnets from street sellers. It will help.

Tourists crowd the ramp to the Seine, waiting for the rope to be lifted. Four people beat us to the front even though we arrived first. They don’t suffer from Britishness.

‘I told you we should have got in the queue sooner,’ she says, wrapping an orange scarf around her neck.

‘Sorry.’

I worry for Becca in her thin blue dress, clinging just above her knees, and her feet squished in heeled sandals. It’s not the warmest evening. I won’t try to give her my jacket though – she finds it offensive.

‘The Seine is like melted chocolate.’ I touch her back, feeling the zip.

‘Brown, Graham,’ she says, shaking off my hand. ‘It’s brown.’

I’m a Paris virgin; nothing is ‘brown’ in Romance Central. People celebrating anniversaries, agreeing where to eat for the first time in years, falling in love, flirting, and not caring that lattes cost five euros. Five euros is barely anything these days, Becca.

The cool breeze brings an odd smell. Cheese? Garlic? Something someone shouldn’t be smoking? I want to ask her. She’ll know, she always knows. She’s been here before.

Perhaps that’s why she was so irritable last night – it could never be as exciting for her as for me. I was in a trance all the way up the Eifel Tower, living every romantic movie I’d ever seen and wanting to create one of my own. I told her I would say ‘I love you’ on each of the six-hundred-and-sixty-nine steps. She said six is more than enough, thank you, so that was that. Sorry.

They unhook the rope and we surge onto the huge tour boat. How does Becca move so quickly in those heals? She doesn’t look back. We climb the steps to the top level, fixed on the prize, all wanting a Titanic moment at the prow. I’m being overtaken and undertaken by Americans – or Canadians, perhaps, I’m never sure.

‘Damn it,’ says Becca, turning, her long auburn hair swishing.

The front rows are taken.

‘Never mind,’ I say, then close my mouth, not wanting to spoil the moment by panting for oxygen.

Her frown makes her eyebrows wonky, but that’s how I like them best – sisters not twins, as she says. She raises them. ‘Take your time.’

It’s 8pm and the city lights are starting to twinkle, though it isn’t dark yet. We take a seat in row four.

Bienvenue. Welcome,’ says the tour guide. She is like a marriage officiant, facing us from the end of the aisle; a young lady, about my age, in a well-fitted black suit, holding a microphone and wearing a smile that reaches every part of her face. ‘I am your tour guide today and I hope you will enjoy what I have to say.’

She says everything in French and English, barely pausing in between. A plump woman across the aisle asks if she will use any Spanish – the tour guide tilts her dark-haired head and apologises. The Spanish lady doesn’t understand the apology, in either language. The scenery speaks for itself though, as does the enthusiasm of the tour guide which increases every minute. How can anyone love their repetitive job so much?

‘And now, coming up on the left, is one of the most iconic sights in all of Paris…’

‘When the tour guide still smiles, there’s hope for the world,’ I murmur to Becca.

‘Huh?’

‘I said, when the tour gui –’

‘Ooh, look!’

Notre-Dame. Everyone on the packed tour boat is startled, as if the towering cathedral is a monster about to swallow us whole. People stand to take pictures as we pass.

‘Damn it, can’t see.’ Becca lifts her phone, trying to find a gap.

‘Don’t worry, there are plenty on Google,’ I say, nudging her.

‘Hey, don’t jog.’

I sit quietly, waiting for her to finish, by which point Notre-Dame is behind us. Becca draws the orange scarf around her shoulders. She has goose-bumps all over her arms and legs – her clothes are purely decorative.

‘This is pretty silk,’ I say, stroking the material above her knee. She changed from a denim skirt when we freshened up in the hotel.

‘It isn’t silk.’ She twitches, always ticklish, and grabs my hand. ‘It’s made to feel like silk.’

‘What is it then?’

She shrugs. ‘Check the label.’

I don’t check the label.

Becca tuts at a blurry photo on her phone, swipes to a sharper version of the cathedral, and gives it a dramatic filter. She’s replying to messages now. Facebook is having a wonderful Paris weekend.

‘Look, so beautiful,’ I say. The sun is snuggling down beneath the city skyline. Ahead of us is a bridge, lit with warm lights. ‘Magical.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘This bridge is called Pont Marie,’ says the tour guide. She lowers her microphone, pacing slowly up and down, waiting for the right moment to speak. When she raises it, her eyes are bright, connecting with everyone who looks her way.

‘This bridge is for the lovers,’ she says. ‘It is an ancient tradition that couples who travel beneath it for the first time must share a kiss, and their wishes will come true.’

‘I’ve been under it before,’ whispers Becca.

I touch the tour guide’s arm. ‘Excusez-moi, is it the first time you go through with the person currently next to you, or the first time ever?’

She shrugs. ‘I don’t think there are any rules.’

‘There aren’t,’ agrees Becca. ‘It’s not even a proper tradition. I read that on Wikipedia.’

‘Well,’ I say, kissing her lips. ‘I believe it.’

‘Of course you do.’

The tour guide looks my way for a moment. ‘Don’t forget to make a wish now.’

I wish everyone smiled as much as our tour guide.

A man stands at the front of the boat, leaning against the rail. He holds his phone in one hand, a beer can in the other; no ring on his wedding finger, no partner, no sadness. He seems peaceful. He doesn’t appear to notice anything the tour guide says, but perhaps he can’t understand, like the Spanish lady. Perhaps his eyes are happy to simply search the skyline.

Tour Eiffel. Applause breaks out across the boat when we see it rising from the city. I glance through Becca’s phone, which can never truly capture the scene – it’s like trying to photograph fireworks. The man takes a sip of beer, smiling. The tour guide is smiling too, always smiling, sharing the first-timers’ joy.

‘Yes!’ Becca cries.

‘What?’ I ask.

‘I’ve got a good pic,’ she says, pushing the screen my way.

‘Oh. Well done.’

I take her free hand, rubbing the back of it.

‘You’re sweaty,’ she says.

‘Sorry.’

I’ve apologised more this weekend than in the rest of my twenty-six years put together. As if I didn’t feel British enough already, searching for proper toilets and trying to order a nice cup of tea. My deepest apologies. Perhaps I should phrase it like that next time; ‘Sorry’ must be boring her.

I wipe my palms on my jeans and cup both her hands, squeezing gently, before making use of my pockets. I’m starting to shiver now too. It’s just as well the tour’s nearly over. Becca is quiet.

The tour guide leans against the rail, microphone rested on her thigh, as we pull into the quay. There is a little jolt as the boat stops. ‘Hopefully you have enjoyed what I’ve had to say.’

Most people are already standing up or fishing bags from under their seats.

‘I have to tell you the truth.’ She looks down. ‘I am not a professional tour guide. I am a student, in Paris to work for the summer. Thank you for listening.’

Some of the tourists give her a clap. There’s a funny taste in my mouth. Acid.

‘Come on.’ Becca gets up. ‘We’ll be here forever.’

People are already crowding the aisle, pushing their way down the boat with even more determination than when they got on. The way Becca’s standing, the breeze is throwing hair across her face and she grabs it into a ponytail, long fringe escaping. She is staring down at me with the strangest expression, eyebrows more like strangers than twins.

‘Come on,’ she repeats.

I stand, but there’s nowhere to go yet. We must wait a little longer.

‘What time we leaving tomorrow?’ says Becca.

‘Don’t know.’

‘Are we going from Les Halles?’

‘Don’t know.’

That’s tomorrow’s task. One of many.

When we finally get to the exit, we pass the tour guide who is standing with a donations box. I don’t catch her eye. It’s easy to smile when you’re only here for the summer.

Becca draws her scarf tighter around her and turns. ‘Are we walking or taking the Metro?’

Nothing can help.

She crosses her arms. ‘Graham?’

My deepest apologies. ‘Becca, we need to talk.’

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