"It'll turn up, Dorothy. Mrs Maloney must have taken it away with all the rest of the washing. And it's so incredibly warm and we're none of us going any further than the pool today. What the hell!"
Dorothy Chambers did not look very reassured by this at first. She had paid a lot for that blouse and it was too bad the way it had disappeared overnight, as well as weird - she always locked her door. It just HAD to be one of the other girls, clowning about. Funny, though, she'd known them all since childhood and silly practical jokes had never been a thing they had been prone to do. They had always been rather a serious and sober-sided bunch.
She glared at the other three and returned to her toast and marmalade, washing it down with a cup of delicious coffee. The sun shone through the large French windows and warmed her exposed arms, shoulders, chest, ample cleavage and midriff. It felt pretty nice, she had to admit.
Elspeth's words had been true enough. For most of the day they would none of them be wearing too much, not in this heat. This was the hottest summer any of them could ever remember. And next day the careless housekeeper would be back, perhaps with her missing blouse and if it WAS one of the others - well, plenty of time to play a trick on her - whoever she was!
As Elspeth had predicted, they spent all morning diving into and lazing beside the swimming pool. Harriet and she played tennis for a while and Jenny took herself off and went for a solitary walk across the moors. They were all busy career women by nature, cast out of their jobs by various and simultaneous misfortunes, holidaying at Frances' recently inherited country home as they took stock of their lives and relaxed together for the first time in years. For the first three days of their stay here, all had gone pretty well as planned.
"I'll go and catch up with Jenny," said Frances. "I don't like to think of her brooding on her own. I think she's taken misfortune much harder that any of us. She always was the sensitive one. We've got to be extra nice to her, I feel."
She went inside the house and came back looking furious.
"OK, you lot, just what the Devil's going on?"
Dorothy was the first to answer.
"Sorry, Frances; I don't understand. What's up?"
"What's up is that my walking shoes are not where I left them and some creep with a twisted idea of what constitutes a joke has left me with only one set of clothes - those I wore this morning. Very funny, girls! But the joke's over!"
She did not look a happy hostess at all. She went on, "I'll go after Jenny in any case, shoes or no shoes. When I get back, I want all my gear returned. I'm not laughing at your stupid childish joke and this is MY house - remember that!"
Dorothy watched her storm off in her flip flops. Before she had got very far she had stumbled several times in this rather unpractical footwear and discarded them, preferring to rely on her own bare feet to carry her. When their hostess was nearly out of sight she turned to the others. "I wonder what's going on; first my blouse then her shoes and all her other clothes. Let's go inside and check on our stuff. This is very odd."
In twenty minutes Dorothy, Harriet and Elspeth returned from their respective rooms. All had the same tale to tell. Their spare clothes had gone and none of them had a complete set, even of their remaining apparel. Dorothy, as has been already mentioned, had no blouse. Harriet, that inveterate topless sunbather had a blouse, but no bra and Elspeth, perennially barefoot, had no shoes. None had bothered to put these items on in the morning and thus not noticed their absence.
"It must have been Jenny," said Harriet at last. "As Frances said, she's taken our misfortunes more to heart than the rest of us. She's flipped somehow. Poor girl - when she gets back with Frances, we'll just have to be extra nice to her. It's a sort of cry for help, I suppose."
Dorothy suggested that they search Jenny's room for the missing clothing. The door was not locked and they had soon searched it from top to bottom. Nothing! Not only were the other girls' missing things not here, but Jenny's spare gear also seemed to have disappeared.
"What was Jenny wearing when she went for her walk?" asked Dorothy. "I seem to remember she wasn't very well covered below the waist, but it's so warm, I hadn't thought much of it."
Harriet agreed. "Right, Dot! She just had her blouse, bikini bottom and shoes on. I thought it a bit daring, but - what the hell! Who's she likely to meet around here?"
"So there we have it!" said Dorothy. "We are all of us missing one item of clothing and we've all had our spare gear swiped. We aren't alone here, girls! Someone had to have done this. I wonder who?"
The three of them trooped outside and waited for Jenny and Frances to return. While they waited they took off what clothes they still had and plunged into the pool. As they swam, the thief rubbed his hands and chuckled. What a jolly day he was having! And there were more days to come!
"Hi, Jenny! Thought you might like some company!"
Frances had finally caught up with the youngest of her guests. She had been worried about her ever since the five of them had arrived here, four days ago. Jenny was usually the most effervescent of girls, by far the most light-hearted of this quintet of lifelong buddies, but had lately she been quiet and subdued, smiling sadly at the others' little jokes and staring downwards seeming to be lost in thought. She had been devastated to lose her post at the merchant bank and seemed totally broken-spirited by it. Of all of them, Frances reckoned, Jenny was the one who most needed this time together.
Jenny smiled and allowed Frances to link arms with her. They walked together for some time and then Jenny laughed gaily, the first time she had not looked solemn for longer than Frances could remember.
"Lost your shoes, darling? Never mind, those are the sweetest feet! I always envied you them! Bet it feels sore, though with all this heat and everything so dusty and dry!"
"Yeah! It does a bit. I like your legs, come to that - and you sure seem to be showing a lot of them today!"
Jenny grinned. "I didn't see where I'd put my shorts this morning, Frances, and it's so warm, I decided to leave off looking for them until tonight. I love the sun on my legs - it feels so free somehow."
Frances became thoughtful.
"Jenny, I can't find my shoes, Dot can't find her blouse and now you say your shorts have disappeared. A pattern emerges! I wonder who the silly bugger is - surely not Harriet or Elspeth - not their scene at all, I'd have said."
"I don't know, Fanny! I wouldn't have thought any of us were that way inclined. Not really. Not like some of the other girls we've known. That Tricia Fordyce and her little gang at school - they liked horsing about - but we were always such goody goodies!"
'Yes. That's right, ' thought Frances, 'We were all five of us serious minded little prigs and went on to be serious minded hard working women and look where it's bloody well got us!' She knew that Tricia was still going from strength to strength in her career as a fashion designer, and the five of them in their solid respectable careers had all come terrible croppers. What a very unfair business Life was! Still inheriting this house had been a welcome surprise - life wasn't all bad.
The place had been built in the Eighteen Seventies by a great-great uncle who had made a fortune in questionable circumstances and then retired here to live out his long retirement. It had been left her by a distant cousin only a couple of years ago and she had not had time to spend a lot of time in it until she lost her job. It might be a bit of a ramshackle place and well off the beaten track, but it was certainly ideal for a summer retreat, with its extensive grounds, tennis court and enormous swimming pool, installed by the last owner.
She had fallen in love with the isolated and remote place, vowing to spend as much time here as she could, but work had been so hectic at the time that it had been impossible to get up very often. And then the crash had come and she was out of work, clutching a fat redundancy cheque and with all the spare time in the world!
As soon as she had become unemployed and learnt of her friends' simultaneous misfortunes, she had invited them all down here to lick their several wounds and think how to get their lives back together. The first day had been spent in a serious discussion, reviewing the ways they could all set up in some kind of business together and then the wonderful weather had reduced them all to a state of semi-comatose and hedonist abandon. And then, this morning, they had started to lose their clothes.
Jenny and Frances continued walking and soon arrived at the highest point for miles around. They stood together and looked down at the Victorian pile below, the sole dwelling in their field of view. Both of them agreed that it was wonderful to be utterly away from it all. They lay down side by side and contemplated the view for some minutes before Jenny fell asleep. Frances sat by her side, her arm around her friend, and then dozed off herself. When the pair woke it was well into the afternoon and the sun well past its strongest. A cool breeze, the first stirring of the air in weeks of hot sultry weather, ruffled Jenny's long golden hair as well as Frances's shorter black locks. They enjoyed this refreshing change in the weather for a while longer, and then Frances got to her feet.
.... There is more of this story ...