Souvenirs (Chapter 1)
By David, United KingdomAs soon as her shift finished, Lily cycled straight from the hospital to the beach. It was a ride of no more than ten minutes, but by the time she arrived she was soaked with perspiration. This was a hot summer, and the afternoon sun was fierce. Sweltering in her blue tunic and heavy black uniform pants, she wondered for the millionth time why someone couldn't design a cool, practical uniform for nurses.
She chained her bicycle to a rail near the top of the steep flight of steps that led to the sand, then took a few moments to admire the panoramic view. The ocean was blue and calm. Over to her left, the main beach, which she knew would be crowded, was hidden by a high wall of rock. That was why so few tourists ever got to know about the 300-foot-long stretch of sand directly beneath her. It was that very rare thing: a British summertime beach that wasn't teeming with people.
Rachel's car was parked nearby. Lily often thought about buying one herself - it would be handy for visiting her family in the north of England - but the mortgage on her apartment left little money for luxuries. It was something she accepted; the property was her statement of financial independence. It was different for Rachel, who was paying a peppercorn rent for a room in the nurses' quarters at the hospital. Not for much longer though; her wedding day was only a few weeks away.
Descending the stairs, Lily saw with satisfaction that she had the place to herself except for two figures sunbathing near the base of the steps. One of them glanced up and gave her a languid wave as she approached.
"All right for some," Lily grinned. "Lazing around while I toil to earn a crust." Looking down at her two best friends in the world, she thought as she always did how the three of them, on the face of it, were so utterly different from each other, apart from their age - mid-20s - and the job they did. They shared no more in looks than in backgrounds.
Rachel's complexion, usually olive, was now tanned to a deep gold. Her hair was such a dark brown that it was almost black, and her eyes were only a shade lighter. With her voluptuous figure in a skimpy yellow bikini, she might have been some sultry beauty from Brazil. In fact, she came from a wealthy, intellectual London Jewish family. Working as a nurse had enabled her to defy her father's wish that she follow him into the family law firm.
A few feet away, Claire was lying on her tummy and reading a magazine. All three girls were good at their job, but it was Claire who fitted the public's view of a nurse as an angel of mercy. It simply was her nature to help people. By tradition, such a beautiful spirit was hidden behind a plain appearance. In fact, Claire was a stunningly pretty, a natural blonde with sparkling green eyes. Her figure - and the briefness of her red bikini - rivaled Rachel's.
On the face of it, Lily had nothing in common with either of them. She came from a northern mining town which had never recovered from the coal pit closure of the 1980s. After training as a nurse, she had felt a little disloyal at leaving the place to work in this idyllic seaside resort. Perhaps it was guilt, as well as loyalty, that made her send money home whenever she could to her parents and younger sisters. She was sure it was needed; her father was an ex-miner, but even if the pit had reopened, his age and the coal dust on his lungs would have kept him unemployed.
She walked a short distance towards the sea, to the untidy pile where the other two had left their clothes and possessions. Unceremoniously she took off her heavy work shoes and her socks, sighing with pleasure at the feel of the hard-packed sand under her slender feet. Her tunic followed, then her pants. She didn't intend to swim today, so her underwear was as good as a bikini.
"Anyone got any sun oil?" she asked. Catching the bottle that Rachel tossed, Lily coated herself liberally with the clear fluid. Now her skin was protected, though it would never tan. But she loved the feeling of freedom, of discarding her responsibilities along with her clothes. Her pale complexion didn't look unhealthy, it simply matched her blue eyes and coppery hair. Her round, snub-nosed face was pertly pretty, not beautiful. She was a little shorter than her friends, her legs rather thick and muscular though shapely, a sturdy busty peasant girl. But she knew only too well that on the main beach, all three of them would have been instant targets for would-be romeos. Nurses had to put up with too much of that during their duties. This secluded place was the perfect spot to unwind, sunbathe, and indulge in girl talk without any hassle.
"How was work?" Rachel asked as Lily sprawled out beside her friends. None of them bothered with beach towels; the sand here was clean, free of dog turds, cigarette butts or the other unpleasant litter that was another hazard of the big beach.
Lily smiled. "Something's wrong. I've been working in the ER for ten weeks and I still haven't met George Clooney! Not that there'd have been time for anything to happen. I was too busy helping to patch up Kevin Smith and a couple of his gang."
"Ugh!" Claire shuddered. "That Smith guy is the worse thug in this town. It's usually his victims we have to look after."
"Not this time. I was talking to one of the cops who took statements from them. You know the Golden Horizon hotel in town? Seems last night Smith and his boys went there to start some trouble. Only they found more than they wanted. They took a real shellacking. Anyway, let's talk about nicer things. What have you two ladies of leisure been doing on your day off duty?"
"Went shopping in town," Rachel answered. "The place was even more packed than usual. There's some sort of business conference."
"Make the most of it anyway. You'll soon have to ask permission to go out!" Lily grinned, but she really didn't like Rachel's fiancé. He was an arrogant man, as surgeons often were. She pointed at the gold ring on Rachel's slender finger. "Know what that is? A ball and chain!"
Rachel pulled a face. "Save the advice, Lil, you sound like my parents. Speaking of relationships, when are you getting back in the water? I hear one of the student doctors is smitten with you."
Absently, Lily glanced at a small fishing boat that was passing quite close to the shore. "I don't go out with guys from work. Not since -"
Not since Carl. The hospital administrator who had promised utter commitment, then cheated whenever Lily was working nights. When she found out, she had punched him in the face. That was the Lily of old, the wild teenager, before the structure and discipline of nursing had calmed her.
Claire looked up from her magazine. "Sooner or later you're going to have to trust someone again, Lil."
"Too risky. I might end up with someone like that dropout boyfriend of yours." Lily loved the fact that the three of them could talk frankly without any offence being taken.
"Give him a chance," Claire protested. "Andy just wants to make a career out of his music."
Lily snorted. "Face it, Claire! He's letting you support him, and you could do much better for yourself."
But the other two were looking past her, towards the ocean. As she turned, Lily heard the sound of an engine. She saw that the boat had not motored past. It had made for the shore at the nearest point to the sunbathers. As she watched, it beached.
Even before the engine stopped, men were jumping from the deck to the sand.