Simon's wife had always admired the ladies at their local tennis club. They were all of a certain age, and when they got together socially there was a quiet serenity in their companionship. Beautifully dressed, without exception, they met every Tuesday and Saturday for lunch in the Pavilion restaurant for a long, lazy lunch full of chatter and laughter.
Simon would watch Louise's eyes wander across the room, her chin resting on her hands, gazing with such admiration at this small, perfectly manicured cohort of ladies that lunch. By comparison, Louise looked positively scruffy, all lycra and trainers, sipping a skinny latte in the corner, still glowing from their exertion on court.
Simon had to admit that they were quite elegant, and often admired them for the sheer effort it must have taken to prepare themselves collectively for their bi-weekly rendezvous. Polished nails, sheer expensive stockings, slim pointed heels and wonderfully tailored skirts, jackets and dresses in classic colours cut with expensive cloth.
The odd thing is that you never saw them with their husbands or boyfriends, but somehow it was quite obvious that they had men in their lives. There were clues, some obvious, others more subtle. Huge diamond wedding and eternity rings sparking across the room, fat shiny cars in the car park and that general air of married affluence.
It was easy to assume that their husbands were scattered across the County lining their pockets in law, medicine, stock broking and underwriting. These were, Simon thought, the quintessentially English 'ladies that lunch', and they had the wardrobes to prove it.
Simon looked up from his latte, wiping the foam from his top lip. Louise had moved her hands from her chin, cradling her coffee cup for warmth. Her eyes were still on the ladies. One of them, with neat straight blonde haircut just above her shoulders caught her eye and smiled. Her red lips burst open into an open happy smile, lighting the room with her perfectly white teeth, and open warm expression.
Louise blushed, managed a small, nervous half smile and quickly turned away. A moment later she looked back to see this gorgeous woman still looking at her, still smiling. Louise composed herself, and this time smiled back without looking away. The woman gave her an acknowledging nod, just enough to signal her approval, and then turned back to her friends. Louise looked at her husband, but somehow, something had changed. Louse felt stronger, happier and more alive than she could ever remember. It was as if this stranger had given her a gift, just by acknowledging her presence.
Simon lent back, finished his coffee and stood up to leave.
"I haven't finished Simon. Sit down!" Louise surprised herself. Normally she would just stand up, take a rushed last gulp and dutifully follow Simon to the car, picking up her bag and tennis racquets. But this wasn't going to happen today. Today Simon was going to be a little bit more considerate.
Simon slowly sat back down, almost amused at the sheer ferocity of his wife's outburst.
"Yes, of course dear. Take your time."
Louise intended to. Twenty minutes later, placing her cup down she dabbed her lips with a napkin and looked up.
"Now I am ready Simon. Shall we go?"
Simon marched towards the door past the ladies and breezed out into the car park.
Louise once again made eye contact with the blonde lady as she passed their table.
"Hello there. Did you win?" Her voice was soft and clear.
"Urm, actually not. My husband is a bit too competitive to give me an easy game," Louise replied, slightly startled by being spoken to by one of these lunching ladies.
"Ahh. Sounds to me like he needs taking in hand."
"Indeed, but he is after all only a man." Once again Louise surprised herself. This woman appeared to give her the confidence to assert herself, and even criticize her husband. She thought to herself once again. "What is happening to me?'
"Do you play tennis too?" Louise enquired.
"Very badly, I am afraid. I use the club mainly to meet up with the girls." With this she gestured to the happily chatting ladies, who looked up and smiled at Louise.
"Hardly girls darling", one of them quipped.
"My name is Charlotte. Nice to meet you".
Louise took her hand and smiled.
"Louise. How do you do?"
"Come and join us next time. We meet usually Tuesday and Saturday for lunch at around 12. I mean, if you would like to?"
Louise saw her husband open the clubhouse door to see where she was. She looked up, feeling slightly annoyed by his presence, and gestured to him that she was on her way.
"Why not. That would be lovely. Next Tuesday would be great."
"Excellent, and no men to hassle you Louise," Charlotte said, looking towards Simon at the door.
"Indeed not" Louise replied crisply.
"Ladies, this is Louise and she is going to join our table on Thursday."
They all smiled in approval. Louise felt a huge sense of warmth and taking Charlotte's hand she said "I am really looking forward to it."
Charlotte held her hand with both of hers and whispered. "We all know how to manage our men with clinical efficiency. Perhaps we can pass on some tips when we next meet."
All the ladies stopped talking at that moment and looked at Louise. A dark haired in a Chanel suit put down a large glass of Sauvignon and looked up at Louise carefully with huge green eyes.
"We are quite ruthlessly efficient Louise, when we put our minds to it."
Louise felt a rush of adrenalin. Who were these ladies? She could hardly tear herself away. She had so many lovely thoughts and feelings rushing through her. Excitement, a definite thrill, and a burning curiosity.
"Well, Tuesday then. enjoy the rest of your lunch."
The ladies waved happily as Louise skipped to the door and walked slowly back to the car.
Simon was already sitting in the car, engine running, when she opened the back door and threw her bag inside. Then she had an idea. Entirely on impulse she also got into the back seat.
"I am going to send some texts Simon, you can drive me home now."
Simon looked in the rear-view mirror. "Yes milady," he retorted, pretending to doff his cap like Parker in Thunderbirds.
Louise scrolled down the screen of her i-phone checking her diary for Tuesday, and thought to herself. "Stupid man." She noticed, with some surprise that her knickers were definitely a little damp.
On Tuesday morning Louise could hardly wait for Simon to leave for work. As he left the house she turned her cheek to his lips at the door. She had never done that before. Simon didn't appear to notice this mild slight and with brief case in hand walked to the car, throwing his keys up into the air and catching them before he jumped in and drove off.
Louise rushed upstairs excitedly and retrieved two bags from under the spare room bed. They were expensive bags, solid rectangles of stiff card and each item was carefully wrapped in pink tissue. Louise sat on the bed and carefully took out the most expensive item of clothing she had ever purchased. A powder blue woolen suit by Armani, with a short jacket, heavily cinched in at the waist and a matching pencil skirt, with cream piping around the waistband and hem. The huge buttons on the jacket gave a witty, playful feel to the suit, which was lined in a very pale lemon silk.
In the second bag were again the most expensive pair of heels she had ever dared to purchase. Pale blue 5-inch stilettos with a chrome heel from Jimmy Choo. They were cut very low at the sides, with an open toe, giving them a racy, almost slutty look that Louise adored. There was something delicious about shoes that had so little to them and yet were so fabulously expensive. Louise felt empowered just holding them.
The rest of the morning was given over to a warm bath, lots of pampering and polishing, and at just after 11 0'clock she pulled her new skirt up over her stocking clad thighs, and feeling behind her pulled the zip up to the top and with her red painted nails, clipped the two hooks into their respective eyes.
Looking in the hall mirror as she left the house she smiled at her transformation. She just could not remember feeling so excited about a lunch before.
At the tennis club, she parked the car confidently with the other Mercedes and BMW's, and checked her lip gloss one more time in the mirror, before swinging her long legs out of her Audi and walked to the clubhouse door, swinging her sparkling clasp bag confidently by her side.
The ladies were just assembling. There were three of them today, plus Louise.
Charlotte took Louise's hands in hers and stepping back gave her a good look up and down.
"Well, Louise. Just look what you found under your lycra."
Louise laughed happily.
"Now. Introductions. Sophie, this is Louise." Sophie was tall lady in her late forties with a splendid thick blonde mane that she had tamed with two huge grip clips at the back. She was quite beautiful, with high cheekbones and the most engaging smile.
"Welcome to our humble party. It is so nice to have new people to talk to." Sophie's accent was refined and controlled. Louise warmed to her immediately
"...and finally our very own Tilly. "
Tilly had a short dark bob that framed her face perfectly. Her complexion was very pale, almost heroin chic, and her blood red lips gave her an almost vampire-like appearance.
Tilly took Louise by the arm theatrically and led her to their table. She lent against her new companion, and in a loud voice she confided. "Whatever you do darling, do not get drawn into our hideous company. We will turn you into a very bad person indeed."
Tilly lent her head closer to Tilly and as their hair touched she replied. "But I want to be bad, very very bad."
Lunch was a happy affair. Louise described her life in Surrey, her lapsed career in advertising, and her love of the theatre.
Over pudding, Louise saw Charlotte catch the eye of Tilly, who nodded, almost imperceptibly. She got the impression that she was about to be let into some big secret.
"Are you happy with Simon dear?" Charlotte asked, almost casually, delicately picking up a raspberry from her plate and placing it between her lips. Her eyebrows curled upwards in anticipation of Louise's reply. All three women looked at Louise carefully.
Louise felt comfortable in her new friends company. They had been so open and friendly, and seemed to show a genuine interest in her. She felt seduced into being completely honest, and really wanted to be.
"Well. I guess like all men he can be a bit selfish sometimes, and he tends to treat me a bit like a member of staff, which is just infuriating." Louise couldn't believe that she just said that. It felt almost confessional.
Tilly spoke first.
"Just like all men. That is interesting Louise. Because our husbands are definitely not at all like 'all men', as you say."
"Indeed not" said Sophie.
Louise looked up from the remains of her marinaded pear, intrigued.
"Perhaps you and Simon would care to come to dinner this Saturday Louise," Charlotte said. Tilly will also be there with her husband.
"I'm skiing, in case you think I am being excluded.' Sophie said, slowly wiggling her spoon in the air to attract Louises's attention."
"That's why we chose the date, silly girl" Charlotte retorted with a wicked grin. Sophie burst out laughing and the whole afternoon drifted on happily until 4pm.
Later that evening, Sophie sat curled up on the sofa with a small brandy, watching television. She had changed into a simple day dress and slippers.
Running her finger around the rim She told Simon that they had been invited to dinner on Saturday.
"Who with?" Simon sat on the edge of the same sofa, legs apart scooping a fist full of dry roasted peanuts into his palm and dropping them into his mouth. Louise felt repulsed.
"Charlotte and Tilly, and their husbands. I had lunch with them today at the tennis club.
"Oh, you mean the 'ladies what lunch'. I didn't know you knew them.?"
Louise remained calm. She was not going to outwitted in this conversation.
"Well, as a matter of fact I had lunch with them today, and they are very nice. I think it would be nice to see them. Meet some new friends for a change."
Simon looked across at Louise. He felt, not for the first time over the last week, a sense of Louise's new found assertiveness, and it gave him an uncomfortable feeling.
Louise continued to run her finger around the rim , and then, dabbing the liquid with her finger sucked a drop in between her lips.
"That is settled then. A Saturday night out for a change."
Simon turned back to the television, and for the second time in a week felt his confidence ebb away a little bit.
Louise picked up the remote and changed channels, casually dropping the remote onto her lap. Simon looked at her angrily, but he could see that his wife was not in a mood for compromise this evening.
"I was watching that," he said sulkily.
"O dear. How annoying for you." Louise was enjoying herself now, and smiled into her brandy glass.
On Saturday Louise went shopping. She was determined to look fabulous and spent most of the day in London, searching for something yummy to wear. She sat sipping a coffee in Selfridges when a text arrived from Charlotte.
'So looking forward seeing you both. Hope you are a bit broadminded. xx'
Louise stared at the screen, and a thousand thoughts rushed through her head all at once. She had no idea how to respond.
'Can't wait. How broad do I need to be?' Louise hesitated momentarily before pressing send. Then with a small thrill she sent it. She stared at the screen like a teenage lover aching for response, and then it arrived.
"Didn't mean to spook you darling. It is just our husbands are, how shall I put it, quite obedient. See you later xx."
Louise put her phone into her bag quickly, as if to hide some guilty secret. What on earth was going on, she thought. Finishing her coffee she took the escalator down to ground level and spent far too much at the Liz Earle counter before taking the tube back to West Kensington to prepare for the evening.
Lying in the bath that evening Louise wiped the condensation off the cold tap with her toe, and then stretched it out in front of her pointing her foot like a ballet dancer.
'Quite obedient' she thought, running a flannel up and down her extended leg. Why would anyone call their husbands quite obedient. For the first time since Tuesday she felt a certain anxiety about this evening. These women were so, what is the word, polished. Louise wondered whether she had made a mistake accepting this invitation. Yet, lunch on Tuesday had been such fun, and she had adored getting dressed up. It felt so decadent, and was so far removed from the normal humdrum existence of the last few years. She felt alive, valued and confident again, and yet she just couldn't quite understand why.
They arrived at 8.20, which felt just about right. Charlotte opened the door and with practiced ease welcomed them both inside. The hall was large and airy with a well-worn marble floor and a curious stuffed crow in a gilded cage prominently displayed on a side table.
"Darling, you look quite divine, she said, kissing Louise warmly on each cheek and taking her wrap off her shoulders. Simon stood there, slightly awkwardly. He wasn't exactly ignored, but he did feel a little less welcome than Louise.
"Nice bird' he quipped, looking at the cage.
Charlotte took Louise by the hand and squeezing it warmly, and led her into the drawing-room. She chose to ignore Simon's comment.
Tilly had already arrived, and rose from the sofa as the new guest arrived.
"Hi Louise. Wow you do look gorgeous."
"Thank you. I really love this dress too." Louise replied, turning 360Â° like a model. For the first time that evening Simon noticed just how well Louise was dressed, and instead of pride he felt a slight twang of inadequacy.
Simon once again stood awkwardly behind his wife, waiting to be introduced. But it didn't happen.
"Hello, I'm Simon, Louise's husband." He said eventually. Tilly looked him up and down and then said after a long pause: -
"Indeed. The boys are upstairs. Perhaps it would be best if you joined them." Her tone was clipped and withering. She made Simon feel that he had committed some unforgivable offence by daring to address her. Unbeknown to either of them at that particular moment, that is precisely what he had done.
"Run along Simon, there's a good boy, Charlotte added, gesturing to the door."
Simon laughed, as if this was some kind of practical joke. But, for some reason, he left the room, half thinking that he may feel more comfortable in the company of Charlotte and Tilly's husbands.
Back in the hall the crow's eyes followed him as he climbed the broad staircase to the large Edwardian landing. The house was large and well maintained. A number of original Edwardian features had been retained, but supplemented with some quirky modern furnishings, and subtle pastel colours on the walls. It felt as if a lot of time and money had been invested to create a very beautiful home indeed.
Following the sound of voices he knocked timidly at a door on the opposite side of the galleried landing.
A high-pitched, effeminate voice replied. "Come in Simon.'
Nothing could have prepared Simon for what happened next.
Inside, a girl sat with her back to the door at a dressing table brushing her shoulder length blonde hair. She wore the prettiest white lace panties and a matching bra. Simon noticed how slender she was, and the sweet scent of perfume in the air. On the bed, wrapped in a pale pink negligee sat another girl, with golden ringlets, filing her nails slowly with a bright pink file. She wore a pair of backless heels, decorated with two fluffy pink pom-poms, and had shocking pink varnish on her toenails.
"Oh, sorry. I was looking for Charlotte's husband," Simon exclaimed backing towards the door. The blonde girl turned round, and took a long look at Simon over her shoulder.
"Here I am. Do come in. I'm Peter, and this is Tom."
"But...you are girls! I don't quite understand." Tom looked troubled and anxious.
"Well, not exactly," Charlotte said, emphasizing each syllable as if to make an important distinction. We are, how shall I put it, feminized as distinct from female. They were both looking at Simon now.
Tom spoke. "Is that clearer now Simon?"
"But why. I don't understand. This is all a bit heavy for me I am afraid."
Tom smiled sweetly. " We are simply obeying our wives orders. They require us to be feminine, so we are, well, feminine."
"But, surely you have a choice. Can't you just say no?"
Charlotte called up from the hall. "Forty minutes Peter."
"Yes dear." Peter's voice was submissive and anxious.
"We need to get ready Simon. Your dress is over there."
Peter pointed to an incredibly short pink party dress hanging on the wardrobe door, with pink ribbons all around the hem, covered in sequins and layer upon layer of taffeta and net petticoats.
Simon just looked at Peter with incredulity.
"You have got to be joking. You don't think for one moment that...."
Charlotte's voice interrupted Simon in mid-flow. She stood in the doorway, arms folded leaning against the frame.
"You don't think for one moment what exactly, Simon?"
Simon turned around sharply. What on earth was going on?
Charlotte walked slowly into the room followed by Tilly. Peter and Tom busied themselves around the dressing table, helping each other with their pink stockings, and putting on their long dangly earrings. They did not make eye contact with either ladies.
They both listened fearfully, knowing how catastrophically badly Simon was handling the situation. They remembered how they too had fought against this at the beginning, but even more vividly they remember how well their wives dealt with their resistance. Charlotte had called it her shock and awe tactic, where the punishments for resisting her demands were so awful that they eclipsed even the most awful instructions.