Or The Search For Santa
“Wassup Bill?” it couldn't be a social call at eight thirty on a Thursday morning in December.
“Do you fancy working this weekend?”
“I'm on holiday Bill.” I sighed.
“I know Chris, but we're in a bit of a bind, Mandy and Frank got snowed in so they aren't back to take the Christmas Markets this afternoon.”
“There's no one else? What did Den say?”
“All the girls are out and Den says he'll do it.”
“Hmm, okay then but you owe me.”
“Great! I could kiss you!”
“It's a good job I'm at home then, see you in an hour.”
I slammed the phone down, I must be daft, I get a week off and I still end up working. Not that I was doing anything in particular, Jules is doing ‘Winter Sun' and won't be back till Saturday so I've only been mooching about most of the week. I crawled out of bed, did the normal morning stuff and sat down with a coffee to catch my breath. My case is always packed so I didn't have to worry about that so I pulled out my lap top, one of Bills better ideas, and pulled up the December schedule. Lets see, week two here we go.
‘Enjoy a fantastic weekend visiting some of the finest Christmas Markets in Europe. We start with an overnight sailing from Hull to Rotterdam then drive into Germany stopping for an afternoon visit to the Dusseldorf markets before going on to our hotel near Cologne. After the early evening meal there will be the opportunity to join the crowds in Cologne's popular markets. On Saturday we include a full day excursion to Koblenz and Bonn. Our last day in Germany will start with a visit to the market in Aalen before we head across Belgium for our overnight ferry back to the UK.'
Well there's nothing complicated there, nothing to really organise at least. Oh bum, is that the time? I shut the lappy down, dropped the cup in the sink and headed on out.
Den's car was already in the car park when I arrived and Betsy II was outside the garage getting a last minute polish – that's what I like with Global, attention to detail!
“Eh oop Chris.” Den greeted me when I walked into the traffic office.
“Morning Den, Bill.”
“Thanks for doing this you two, Frank should've been back yesterday but their hotel got snowed in at the weekend and they only got clear yesterday. It's been a right nightmare, had to find a different hotel for their overnight and of course they were due out this afternoon.”
“Just don't make a habit of calling us in.” I told him.
“I've rescheduled so you get next week off, Frank and Mandy will take your short Ostend then we are back to schedule.”
“Sounds fine,” Den noted. “Best get ready as we're doing the pickups, we've got to be in Nottingham for one.”
“Nearly forgot,” Bill started, “Maureen has a box of stuff for you to take, I've already had her put the new brochures in the locker and the presents are in there too.”
“Presents?” I mouthed to Den as we both left Bill's office.
“For the passengers, it'll be some trinket with Global on it.”
“Maureen oh light of my life, Bill says you have a box for us?” I got delegated as lackey while Den headed out to check on our transport.
“Does Julia know about us?” she hammed.
“I think she does my love.” I replied leaning in and puckering up.
“Give over you great lummox!” she pushed me away, “your box is on the sofa.”
I turned to look, flippin heck, what the hell is in there?
“Have a good trip, bring me back something nice.”
I hefted the box, at least it wasn't too heavy but it was difficult to manoeuvre out to the yard with it. Although it was bright, the strong winds were starting to pull some ominous grey clouds over the blue; I hope the crossing isn't too rough.
Christmas decorations! Of course it's a bit of a tradition this time of year to tinsel up the buses, Den hates it but the management like to add the ‘seasonal touch'. I know what he means, you see some buses with so much hanging in the windows you can barely see out, at least we are a bit more subtle!
“Come on youth, you can do that on the way down.”
“Okay.” I stuffed the box onto the front seats, “coffee?”
“I'll turn the boiler on.”
Den gunned Betsy into life and eased her out of the yard, Maureen came out to wave us off as the first spots of wet hit the windscreen.
By the time we made the first pickup the coach was sporting about as much tinsel as Den would permit, it was pretty subtle, some swags along the luggage racks, tinsel on the handrails and heaven forbid, a cd of seasonal music. Still I suppose it gave a bit of seasonal atmosphere, especially on a day that was starting to look increasingly dismal. Our last pick up was Scunthorpe and as we headed towards Hull it was already dark. At least we were early enough to miss the traffic as we traversed the city centre en route to the docks.
While Den checked us in I used the mirror to look back down the bus at our cargo. A full bus of chatting passengers, more women than men but a more mixed age range than on a summer tour. In fact we've even got a few kids on board and by the looks of a lot of the blokes they are along as porters!
“Right we're straight on, the cabin allocations are in the envelope, apparently we are booked in for first sitting in the restaurant.” Den advised as we headed for the loading ramp.
I scanned the contents of the envelope as we waited to load – usually we don't get these complications, we even have to unload overnight bags this time but I guess it cuts the driving time. Den and I were sharing so at least I won't have to hump my own case upstairs! We only had to get the passengers upstairs for now, the pursers do the key stuff and then they can get afternoon tea before we sail at half six.
“I'll take the bags up.” Den mentioned.
“Right I'll make sure all the passengers get stowed then.” I left Den to secure Betsy and followed the tail end Charlie's to the lift.
Of course we are not the only coach on tonight's crossing but we managed to be the third to load up so it's a bit less fraught than the later arrivals will have it, there's an hour before they load cars and foot passengers. Unlike our usual Dover – Calais crossing tonight we are on the water for around twelve hours, as I mentioned before, it does save about seven or eight hours travel time and it means tomorrow will be quite relaxed.
“Everyone sorted?” I asked the purser returning from a quick comfort stop.
“Yes, you're the tour manager?”
“Chris Hornby, yes.”
“We've got your lot in the main restaurant, the tables will be reserved so if you can look after them on that?”
“Sure, where am I bunking?”
“Lets see…35b, okay down to the end, turn right, third on the left, your drivers got the key.”
I hefted my lappy and other paperwork and went to find Den.
“That was easy.” I mentioned entering the tiny two-bed cabin.
“Hmm.” Den replied from under the bunk.
“Um, Den? Where's my bag?”
“Good question, not on Betsy.”
“What do you mean, not on Betsy?”
“What I said, it's not on the bus.”
“It has to be!” I stated desperately.
“Where did you put it?”
“Where I do usually, front locker near side, oh bum!” I slapped my forehead; “I left it at the flat, damn! With all the rushing to get to the depot and then sorting out that box of decorations I never gave it a thought. I guess I can manage till tomorrow. I was sure I'd brought it.”
“Better not spill your soup tonight then.” Den mentioned.
“Too right!” I agreed.
We were just sitting to eat as the Nordsee eased out of Kingston docks; the weather had descended to squally rain beating on the ships exterior. According to the weather reports we could have a choppy crossing although the weekend should be generally dry and bright, I hope so – there's nothing worse than one of these trips in the wet.
One thing you can guarantee on North Sea Ferries , the food is excellent! Although we had a reserved area for our coach, Den and I were at least sat on our own table. It's a temptation with such a spread to pig out and looking at some of our charges plates, they had done just that. They'll regret it! Den and I were much more restrained, and even so it was a struggle to get the cheesecake down afterwards!
I did the courtesy round of the tables making sure they knew the timetable for the morning before returning to Den. It's much easier when it's a busload of shoppers rather than holidaymakers!
“That's it, we can cut lose.”
“Sounds good to me.” I agreed.
We headed up to the small bar on the deck above, and I soon had a Leffe sat in front of me. When you spend so much time with someone the conversation can get a little thin so by mutual consent we just sat and relaxed, moving onto coffee after a second beer – Den is driving in the morning after all! We agreed on an early night well earlyish so we made our way back to 35b, the ship was tilting a bit, I hope that doesn't mean a coach load of sickies in the morning.
The breakfast room was quite subdued in the morning, a lot of no shows and a good number of green faces. We might be in dock now but overnight there had been some wild weather. I was a bit concerned by the looks on several faces, I didn't relish the smell of sick and disinfectant, sure we have the mini Vax on board but there is always some contact and I'm not good with that!
We hadn't got back onto the bus before my fate was sealed however. I should have known better than sit waiting near the gents, there was a shout, ‘coming through!' of course everyone looked to see what the commotion was all about. The lurching figure made it as far as me but could hold it no longer; I and a good bit of the corridor received the most disgusting shower possible! A woman obviously following on behind stopped and shrieked.
“William Wadsworth look what you've done, I told you not to have the salmon! Are you all right miss?”
All right? You are kidding surely?
A clean up gang soon arrived but let's face it I wasn't going to be so easy to sort out. Den arrived with the purser.
“You certainly don't do anything by halves do you.” Den noted to which I replied with a sarcastic smile.
“I think you need to get a shower and changed.” The purser prompted, “can you fetch her something to wear mate?” he asked Den.
“I er sure”
Hang on did he just say ‘her'?
I just followed along, here I was wearing someone else's sick and lacking as much as a change of clothes. After a short walk involving a staircase, two bulkhead doors and a short corridor, the purser led me into what I guess was his cabin by the décor.
“You can shower in here, there's towels in the cupboard, I'll get someone to bring your clothes up shortly.”
“Er thanks um?”
“Marcus, I'll get a bag for that stuff too Chris.”
With that he was gone, I lost no time in stripping off and getting in the shower, geez its got everywhere! Hmm, does he really think I'm a girl? Why would he think that? Nah I was just hearing wrong, I hope Den can rustle up something for me to wear.
Meanwhile several decks below.
“Sorry folks, there's been a little incident involving Chris, he's okay but needs a shower and change of clothes. We should be away in about fifteen minutes.” Den told his passengers before going to find something for Chris to wear, at least temporarily. Wasn't there something in that box, I'm sure he said there was some sort of costume. There was but Chris wasn't gonna be a happy camper!
“You've got to be kidding Den!”
“Well unless you want to wear a Santa suit that's too big for me…”
I sighed, looks like I'm going to be Santa's little helper then, boy is this embarrassing, what the hell was Bill thinking.
“I am not wearing the hat or ears!”
“And they're so cute.” Den riposted ducking my swipe. “I'll wait for you at the bus.”
“I'll be down quick as.”
First I forget my case now I have to dress in an elf outfit, a sexy girl elf! Does life get better than this? In reality it wasn't so much the fact it was intended for a woman to wear it, I mean I'm hardly a stranger to skirts am I? No it's the um brevity of the outfit.
It actually fitted quite well, even disguising my lack of chest the way it was cut; the skirt was, um, short and it was finished off with a pair of ballet style flat shoes. Geez!
“Ah there you are.” Marcus the purser noted.
“Thanks for that, you're a life saver.”
“It was worth it to see you in that costume, your driver told me about your case.”
“Blondes eh?” I shook a handful of hair at him.
“Very lovely blondes.” He replied which soon had me blushing.
“Well thanks again, I'd better get downstairs.”
Maybe I ought to tell you about the hair. Remember Berlin? Nena? Jules did a bleach job on me and to be honest I quite liked it. So instead of my natural mid brown I've been a high maintenance blonde for several months now, I've also let it grow a bit longer than usual. I might revert to natural or I might not, we'll see.
“Hi folks, sorry for the delay.” I called as I climbed onto Betsy.
“Here she is.”
“Look Sam, it's one of Santa's elves.”
“Is she beautiful mummy?”
“Quite.” Mummy was heard to reply.
“Well now Santa's helper is here we can be on our way.” Den noted.
“What did you tell them?” I enquired in a low voice.
“I um sort of said that Nena the Elf was coming instead of Chris who was feeling ill.”
“Just you wait Dennis!”
“Well they all thought you were a girl already.”
“How? I… no I don't even want to go there. Okay I'll play along,” I sighed, “but first chance I'm buying some more practical clothing.”
“And you look so cute!”
As Nena I've never had too many issues with wearing skirts and stuff but I was very self-conscious in this get up. Despite or was it because of my outfit I did a good trade in hot drinks, it was as forecast bright but Betsy's external thermometer was struggling to get much above two or three degrees. It was only maybe 300km to Düsseldorf so there were no scheduled stops, not that a motorway services would provide much in the way of clothing. It was coming up to midday when we turned off the motorway to head into the city for our first stop. The office had supplied a map to get us in the right area, just as well as I don't know the place too well, any well actually!
“Well folks, our first stop in the search for Santa is here at Düsseldorf. We have four hours here and there are two main markets to explore, we are dropping here at the Bahnhof but if you look over to the left, if you follow that street it will take you up to the main shopping area and the City Markt. Wrap up warm, its cold outside! So back here at four pm.”
At least bundled up against the cold the normal ‘English abroad' outfits are well hidden! By the time we had everyone unloaded, baby buggied and headed in the right direction we'd been fifteen minutes.
“Are you getting off here to get some clothes?” Den enquired, “The parking is down by the river.”
“I guess, at least I've got my coat.” I replied a bit uncertainly.
“Oh sod it, shut the door, I was going to walk up but we can grab a taxi.” Den stated.
At least my coat was longer than the skirt; my bits were still in danger of getting frostbite though. I surveyed the crowds while Den paid the taxi.
“So, what are you buying?” Den enquired.
“Well it looks like I've got to be a girl for the weekend.”
“Wasn't me that left their case at home.” Den mentioned.
“Okay, my fault. I guess enough to get through the weekend then, lets get inside somewhere, my bits are dropping off!”
At least I know my sizes so it should be quite straightforward.
After visits to H&M , Orsay , C&A and the Karstadt I had pretty much everything including a small pink roll along to put it all in. I only wanted to get the essentials but even that amounts to a fair bit! Underwear, shoes, two skirts, a couple of tops, a gorgeous jumper, some basic makeup supplies, two hours, oh and some um enhancers later, I was at least in a position to not appear a freak any longer than strictly necessary! We hadn't eaten so we made use of the Dinea for a soup and coffee; the evening meal at Köln was only a couple of hours away so we didn't need much.
“You bothered about the markets?” I asked Den.
“Not really, we've got one or two more this weekend.”
“You mind if we go back to Betsy then? I can get this lot squared away then.”
“Sure, we'll get a taxi back down.”
They were nearly all waiting for us when we got back to the railway station and the whole forecourt was looking quite festive as darkness descended and all the area was a sea of coloured lights. I'd stayed in the Elf outfit but with the addition of my new jumper I was at least marginally warmer as we reloaded. It was great to see the kids faces, rosy cheeks but full of awe and delight, indeed even the adults were all smiles, I'm sure they had been sampling the various delights on offer!
I did a quick count, yep all accounted for.
We joined the traffic to start the last leg of today's drive.
“So did you find Santa in Düsseldorf?”
“No elf Nena.”
“Oh dear, whatever shall we do? I know, lets see if we can find him in Köln.”
“Yeeees!” the kids and not a few of the adults replied.
“Okay then, can we go to Köln Mr Driver?”
“Yes Elf Nena, we should be there in an hour.” Den replied on his mike.
“If anyone wants hot drinks I will be around shortly.”
The drive down to Köln was to say the least tedious. A combination of road works and heavy evening traffic meant a stop start ride until we were almost at the hotel, the Citi Hotel, Köln, a short walk from the centre.
“Guten Abend. Sorry we are late, Global Tours?”
“Ach so, yes we are expecting you. Let me just advise the chef, the evening meal is for fünf Uhr,yes?”
“If you can do that, I'd like to leave for the Weinachtsmärkte about six.”
The receptionist disappeared leaving me to check out the reception area, I could see Den already starting to unload the bags and on Betsy herself I could see the activity of impatient passengers getting ready to disembark.
“So, we will be ready in half an hour for you at the restaurant, if you bring your passengers in we can give rooms.”
I went outside to the bus to summon the troops.
“Hello, attention please!” the noise abated somewhat so I went on, “can you please disembark, I will open the central door in a moment. If you collect your luggage and go into reception they will allocate your rooms. We have a hot and cold buffet this evening from,” I checked the clock, “ten past five, then at six we will depart for the Weinachtsmarkt. We will be walking as it is not far and once at the Dom the evening is yours. Okay?”
I stepped back off the bus just in time to avoid being crushed in the rush to get off. I shivered a bit as I waited and assisted the exodus, I need hot food! They were still collecting luggage when I started the rubbish run, by the time I was done the only luggage left was mine and Dens. Why the hell did I buy a pink case?
“You ready Nena?” Den enquired from the door.
“As it gets, we're just about ready for the morning.”
“Come on then, I'll park Betsy up when we come back down.”
Talk about feeling silly, I must've looked a right sight in my elf suit, jumper and pulling a bright pink trolley case! Brrrr! We collected our keys and were soon on floor ten at our adjacent rooms. What a day, sicked on, forced to wear a stupid costume, my bits frozen off and an afternoon shopping for clothes I don't want. I couldn't wait to shed the stupid elf outfit and I was soon stripped and gathering my new wash kit.
Fifteen minutes later I was feeling much better and looking much more like the girl I was now masquerading as. Unfortunately it was far too easy, a bit of slap, chicken fillets and a squirt of Impulse , I rued that day at the start of the summer season where this whole Nena thing started.
"We've got an idea" Mandy enthused.
"About how to get your 'interface' more compatible" she continued.
"Go on" I rolled my eyes. Last time I listened to them I ended up dressed as Santa on the Christmas tour! All week!
"Well what if Christopher was taken ill and Christine took over?" Mandy suggested.
"What are you on about" I wasn't getting something here.
"What Mand is trying to say is that we reckon you could pretend to be a girl this week to see if the punters treat you any different" Julia explained.
"You've got to be kidding!" I exclaimed.
"No seriously Chris, we've worked out how we do it and we're pretty sure you can do it" Mandy filled in.
Well no point in moaning about it now, I guess I've used ‘Nena' for my own ends too. I quickly dressed, thick woolly tights, knee length cord skirt, my jumper and finished with an imitation sheepskin body warmer and some cute short sheepskin boots. So okay, it's hardly uber modest but it was promising to be warm at least. The food was an interesting combination of pasta dishes and salad stuff but to be honest I didn't fancy it so I got a coffee and settled down to wait for departure time.
“Not eating?” Den arrived from parking Betsy in the secure compound.
“I fancy something a bit more… exciting?”
“We could grab a bite in town, dump this lot and go eat?”
“Sounds good to me.” I agreed.
Den got himself a coffee and we sat chatting until the passengers started to gather just before the allotted hour. Slipping my gilet back on I prepared to address our charges.
“Okay, we'll set off in a moment, it's only about a ten minute walk so we can't get too lost.”
That got a few low chuckles.
“Okay, I have maps here, they show the hotel and where the Christmas markets are. There are three main markets, the Dom, Alter Markt and Neumarkt, the first two are quite close at this end of the city, Neumarkt is a bit of a walk at the other end of the shopping zone. A lot of the shops will be open late this evening but I would suggest if you want to go to Neumarkt you go there first. Well it looks like we are all here, Dennis, if you could lead?”
If you've been to the Christmas markets you'll know what they are like, at just gone six you get a sort of crossing of market goers. The day shift are starting to head home, city workers stop by for glühwein and the real evening crowd start to arrive, families, friends, not so many tourists in the mix.
“Okay, everyone. Behind me is the Dom Markt, the best known of the Köln markets. The street over behind Dennis will take you to the main shops and the Neumarkt. Have a good evening, breakfast is from seven but we have a late start, nine thirty for tomorrow's excursion. Enjoy!”
I had to answer a couple of questions – I'm no expert, I've been here twice before, but soon it was just me and Den stood by the West Door of the Dom.
“I think so.” I agreed. “I seem to recall there are quite a few places between here and the Alter Markt.”
We shuffled around the edge of the market, the smell of sausages, fried potato, glühwein and much more besides really got my taste buds going! It wasn't so cold, no it was cold but it wasn't freezing although there was a veil of steam from the hot food stalls hovering over the market. The route to the Alter Markt wasn't hard to find, there was quite a lot of traffic making the move and we joined their number.
A few restaurants looked interesting but full; maybe this isn't such a good idea.
“How about this one?” Den suggested.
“Looks quite full, hang on.” I managed to snag a waiter.
“Gibt es einen Tisch hier bitte?”
“Looks like we're in” I mentioned to Den.
“Diesen Weg bitte.” The waiter motioned for us to follow.
We followed into the bowels of the busy restaurant where we were seated at a table in a noisy, busy room.
“Um, zwei bier bitte.”
Our waiter left us with the menu and I divested myself of my gilet, it was quite warm in here.
“Hmm, Sion Brauhaus.” Den noted.
“Well it's the home of the Sion Brewery, see they only do Sion beer.” He pointed out.
“I hope the food is as good as their brewing then.” From what I'd seen so far it looked excellent.
Our beer was delivered, the waiters, no waitresses I noted, were constantly on the move, the place really was abuzz! We ordered, ate drank and enjoyed just being there. The highlight of the evening was the arrival of about a dozen men in Lederhosen – you heard me, Lederhosen in December! They got a rousing reception and treated everyone to a rousing folk chorus before getting down to the serious business of eating and drinking.
It was knocking on eight when we settled up and stepped out into the cool of the night, by comparison the street outside was almost silent. The sounds of the nearby markets drifted towards us and I gave a slight shudder.
“Fancy a look at the markets then?” Den enquired.
“Why not, its early yet I guess. Alter Markt?”
Well it was as close from our present location so we started heading that direction. I don't care what anyone says, these markets just seem to exude Christmas! The lights, the smells, the bizarre gifts – the general ambience, they all scream Christmas to me. We mooched about, I bought some candles for my mum, Den bought a silver necklace for his other half – you can't not buy anything. It was a bit annoying hanging onto the packet of wax so I ended up buying a small leather rucksack, well I'm sure Jules will like it.
We wandered out into the Lehrmarkt where a few fairground rides were attracting attention along with a skating rink.
“You don't get that in Barnsley!” Den noted.
“That's for sure.” I agreed, “I've not been skating for years.”
“Why not have a go now?”
“Dressed like this? I should co-co.”
“What's wrong with how you're dressed?”
“Well it's a skirt for starters.”
“So, there are plenty of girls wearing skirts on there.”
I had to admit he was right.
“Come on, you know you're dying to have a go.” He steered me towards the ticket booth, “Einmal bitte.”
“Welche Größe bitte?” the girl asked.
“Er einundvierzig bitte”
She got a pair of white skates and presented me with them.
Well my goose was cooked! I used the bench to change my footwear then gingerly joined the skilfully circling crowd on the ice. It's a bit like riding a bike, skating, once you learn you never forget and I won't say I was soon zipping around but I was at least going where I intended. It's fair to say that I've never skated in a skirt before, it sure feels different with the freedom it brings, no trousers tugging at your legs, the cool air swirling around and up my skirt.
I was soon lost to the ice and even tried one or two more interesting moves even managing a little toe loop! I waved to Den who had somehow acquired what looked like a mug of glühwein; hmm I'll have to try some of that. This really was becoming a good night – great food, great company and great fun. However all good things come to an end and my time on the ice was up.
“I take it you enjoyed that?” Den noted as I rejoined him on terra firma.
“No hated every minute.” I straight faced.
“You won't want any glühwein then.”
“I think so!”
We were soon nursing not just steaming cups of glühwein but hot dogs too – well I'd built up quite an appetite with all that skating and I couldn't eat alone could I? We wandered back up through Alter Markt and towards the Dom Markt drinking and eating as we walked. The bigger market was noisier too, the wares varying little but who cares, it's an atmosphere thing! Mind you time was getting on now, past ten in fact.
I stifled a yawn.
“Someone's tired.” My colleague mentioned.
“Hmm.” I agreed.
“Back to the hotel for a coffee?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
I'm glad the hotel is near the centre; it wasn't many minutes before we were warming ourselves with coffee in the hotel bar. A few of the passengers joined us over the next half an hour, everyone in good spirits and in various levels of Christmas cheer! Den and I made our excuses a bit before midnight.
“See you in the morning.”
“Yep, night Den.”
I closed the door and was soon half lying on my bed. Hmm it's been quite a night, I've had a really good time, maybe this weekend won't be such a washout after all. I looked at my reflection in the long wall mirror, God my face is a bit flushed, maybe I can do something with my hair tomorrow. I twirled a lock between my fingers, hmm.
I soon drifted off into the land of nod, a smile upon my face.
© Maddy Bell 02.01.07Want to Comment? click here to Email me