Melissa waited.

“I mean, it was a bit rude to spring you on us. He might have warned us.” Jan stood with one hip jutting out, one skeletal beringed hand resting on it. Her eyes were slightly protuberant, the sort of eyes usually found in a fatter face. Her mouth was very thin and painted scarlet. “How long have you known my son?”

“I have been working at the research centre for some months now,” said Melissa. “Paul is a colleague, that’s all. He asked me to join him on this visit.”

“And of course you jumped at it,” said Jan contemptuously. “Do you always wear your hair like that?”

“Are you always so rude?” countered Melissa.

“Don’t be cheeky,” said Jan. “I can tell by that accent of yours, Surrey with the whinge on top, that you are not used to this sort of society. Nor will you become so, if I have anything to say about it.”

“Piss off,” said Melissa furiously.

Jan gave a mocking laugh and returned to her son. She said something to him and he shrugged and then crossed the room and sat down next to Melissa. “Your mother doesn’t think I’m good enough for you,” said Melissa.

“Don’t let it bother you. She wouldn’t consider anyone good enough.”

Melissa was twenty-three, an age she had hitherto felt classified her as a mature woman. Now she felt quite weepy and childlike. She thought of her parents, Mum and Dad in the shabby terraced house in Reading with its poky rooms and weedy garden. She had her own flat now, but as soon as she got out of this hell-hole, she would go and see them. Never again would she be ashamed of her background. There was love and warmth there and comfort. Sod Paul for having dragged her into this!

But her mood was soon to lighten. Jan was complaining about the heat from the fire. “Sit over here, Jan,” urged old Andrew Trent, his eyes twinkling. He indicated an armchair a good bit away from the fire. Jan sank down gracefully into it and then there came the sound of a large long-drawn-out fart. Jan flew up, her face scarlet. “It’s one of those damned cushions,” she started to rage, but then, mindful of the reason for the visit, she forced a smile on her face. “What a joker you are, Andrew,” she said, and the old man cackled with glee.

“I think Mr Trent’s rather an old duck,” said Melissa.

“Don’t say that,” said Paul. “Wait till he really gets started. He isn’t ill at all, you see. He must have been feeling lonely. Now he’s got a whole houseful of people to torment.”

“Can’t we just leave…in the morning?”

“It’s snowing a blizzard. Enrico says we’ll be trapped for days.” Melissa looked across the room. Mr Trent was watching her. He drooped one eyelid in a wink.

Melissa smiled. She thought he was sweet.

¦

The party broke up at eleven o’clock and they all went off to their respective rooms. Paul accompanied Melissa to her door. He stood for a moment moving from foot to foot and staring at her. Then he seized her hand and shook it. “Good night,” he said and scurried off to his own room. Melissa shrugged and pushed open her door, noticing as she did so that it was already a little ajar. A bag of flour, which had been balanced over the door and was intended to burst over her, fell instead in one piece, striking her a stunning blow. She clutched her head and reeled forward and sank to her knees on the carpet. “Ha! Ha! Ha! He! He! He! Haw! Haw! Haw!” cackled a voice. Still holding her head, she stumbled to her feet, looking around wildly as the hideous cackling went on and on. She found a joke machine, which was producing the hellish laughter, had been hidden behind the clock on the mantelpiece. She seized it and shook it but it went on laughing, so she wrenched open the window and threw the thing out into the white raging blizzard.

Paul Sinclair had been prepared for jokes, but came to the conclusion that he was to be left alone and began to relax. He opened his shirt drawer to take out a clean shirt for the morning and two clockwork paper bats flew up into his face. Nonetheless, he felt he had got off lightly.

Angela Trent found her father had sewn up the bottoms of her pyjamas. Betty, who was sharing a room with her sister, lay in bed giggling as Angela swore terrible oaths as she looked for her sewing scissors to cut the bottoms of the pyjama legs open. But as Betty lay laughing, she clutched her favourite hot-water bottle in the shape of a teddy bear to her bosom. It began to leak all over her and her laughter changed to squawks of outrage and dismay. Her father had punctured her hot-water bottle.

Charles lay stretched out on the top of the bed and watched Titchy Gold as, clad only in a brief nightie, she went to see if the housekeeper had hung away her clothes properly. Charles and Titchy were not sharing a bedroom, but Charles planned to enjoy a little love-making before retiring to his own room. Titchy opened the carved door of a massive Victorian wardrobe and a body with a knife thrust in its chest fell down on top of her. She screamed and screamed hysterically. The bedroom door opened and Andrew Trent stood there, leaning on his stick and laughing until the tears ran down his face. Behind him gathered the other guests.

“It’s a joke, Titchy. A dummy,” said Charles, taking the hysterical girl in his arms. “Come to bed. It’s too bad of you, Dad. Your jokes are over the top.” When Mr Trent and his guests went away, Titchy howled that she was leaving in the morning.

Charles soothed her down. “Look, I’ve been thinking, Titchy. Dad’s an old man. He’s enjoying himself and, yes, he tricked us all into coming here by saying he was at death’s door. Why don’t we just charm the old money- bags and pretend his jokes are funny? He can’t live for ever. If he drops off, then I inherit, and we’ll have loads of money.”

“Are you sure?” Titchy dried her eyes and gazed up at him.

“Sure as sure. He’s Trent Baby Foods, isn’t he? Worth millions. Come to bed.”

The fastidious Jeffrey Trent removed his contact lenses and said to his wife, “Well, at least he has had the decency not to play any tricks on me. But dying he most certainly is not. I will get out of here as soon as possible even if I have to charter a helicopter to do so.”

His wife held up the phone receiver of the extension in their room. “Dead,” she said. “We’re cut off.”

“Tcha!” said Jeffrey. He went into their bathroom to urinate before going to bed.

But he did not notice until it was too late that the practical joker had covered the top of the toilet with thin adhesive transparent plastic.

¦

Melissa slept heavily and awoke to the sound of a gong beating on the air. The door opened and Paul walked in. “Aren’t you dressed yet?” he exclaimed. “We’re all expected at the breakfast table at nine. House rules.”

“I haven’t telepathic powers,” groaned Melissa. “Why didn’t you tell me last night? God, I feel sick. That old bastard put a bag of flour over the door and it hit me a stunning blow on the head. He should be certified. Did anything happen to you? And poor Titchy.”

“I got clockwork bats in the shirt drawer. I’ll see you downstairs.”

“No, you don’t!” Melissa scrambled out of bed. “I’m not facing that lot on my own. What’s the weather like?”

Paul pulled aside the curtains. Together they looked out at the bleak whiteness of driving snow. “Damn!” muttered Melissa. “Trapped. Wait here, Paul. I won’t be a minute.”

She grabbed some clothes and went into the bathroom. She stripped off her transparent pink nightie – Paul hadn’t even noticed it – and pulled on her underwear and an old pair of jeans and a ‘Ban the Bomb’ sweater.

“I wouldn’t wear that,” said Paul firmly. “Not the sweater. We’re working on nuclear power, remember?”

“But not bombs. Wait! I’ll put on a blouse instead. This place is too hot for a sweater anyway.” She stripped off the sweater. Would Paul notice the fetching lacy bra? No, Paul was staring in an unseeing way out of the window. She put on a man’s white shirt and tied the ends at her waist.

The dining room was in an uproar when they entered. Betty was sitting with yellow egg yolk streaming down her face. Charles and Titchy were laughing in a forced way. Andrew Trent was laughing so hard he looked as if he might have a seizure, and Jeffrey, Jan and Angela were in states of suppressed rage. It transpired that the old practical joker had put a device under the tablecloth and under Betty’s breakfast. He had then pressed a connecting lever and some wire spring had hurled the contents of Betty’s plate straight into her face.

“You old fool,” growled Angela. “One day someone will throttle the life out of you and it might be me.”

“Did you cut the phones off?” demanded Jeffrey.

“Not I,” said his brother, wiping his streaming eyes with his napkin. “Snow’s brought the lines down.”

Enrico’s wife, who, it transpired, was called Maria, quietly came in with a basin of water and a face towel,

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