“And then?” the voice prompts
“And then I wake up…”
“Fascinating. Always the same dream.”
I shift on the couch, my left shoulder beginning to feel numb. The dim
lighting of the office is very soothing. Alice is good at this, but I
can still remember how nervous I felt during our first session.
“You never did get to hear her sneeze?”
She’s not looking directly at me, I can tell that even though I’ve
got my eyes shut. She’ll have the notebook out, pen ready to jot
down anything important. I like that. I think if she’d been
recording these sessions on a tape recorder I’d feel more
self-conscious. I know there’s laws, ethical standards … a tape
just seems so much more obtrusive.
“No. I never heard her sneeze. Not in the whole ten months we were
together. I mean I’m not saying she never sneezed, just not when I
I’d heard Alice sneeze though. It was during our first session. A
quiet, half-stifled “hh-chmmpf”. I was mortified. It was almost
like she’d seen through me the minute I walked into her office and
she was testing me out just to confirm her suspicions. That’s nuts
of course, but I was convinced she would’ve spotted my reaction.
She’s a professional, after all. And I did react. I don’t remember
how, but I must’ve looked away or blushed or something.
“Did it bug you that she never sneezed? Was it a constant source of
I shake my head and then confirm verbally, as though for a moment I
think it is all being recorded. “I was curious, naturally …
but it wasn’t central to our relationship. I mean I was in love with
It turned out Alice hadn’t picked up on anything that first day. It
wasn’t until we got to the dream. The same dream I’ve been having
now for several months. The same dream I had the night Helen left me.
“You never told Helen about your fetish?”
For a moment I’m silent. That last word always makes me uncomfortable.
I mean it’s what I have. I realise that now. It’s not a bad thing.
I suppose that’s part of what Alice has done for me, reinforced that
fact. I still … I still feel uncomfortable about the word. I can’t
“I never told her, no. I didn’t want to. I mean I didn’t know how
“Maybe you thought if you waited long enough … I mean she had to
sneeze eventually, right?”
“I suppose. Only … only it doesn’t matter now. We split up. End of
I hear the rustle of paper, then there’s Alice’s voice again, so
calm, so gentle. “Only it’s not the end of the story, is it?”
Of course not. I know that. There’s the dream. I can’t escape it. It
keeps coming back.
It’ll soon be winter. The nights are really drawing in now. There’s
always a period in autumn when you can kid yourself that summer will
linger on forever. The warmth will stay in the air, even into
November. But you can’t cheat the seasons. Once the clocks change
and the nights draw in, you know it’s a lost cause. I can almost see
my breath steaming up as I exhale, stood at an empty bus stop waiting
to get a ride back to the flat. At the weekend the city centre fills
up with students and office workers, hordes of people desperate to
make the most of their leisure time. I prefer it like this. Quiet.
I’m still relaxed from my hour with Alice. I wonder if we’ll ever
get anywhere? Is there anywhere to get? I trust her. I hated all the
questions at first, but frankly that’s her job. Now it’s gone to
the other extreme. I want her to strip me bare, to examine me from the
inside out. I want her to find out what makes me tick. I want answers
to questions I never even knew I had.
I also want a normal nights sleep, untroubled by dreams that never
The bus arrives and I climb onboard. I like to sit upstairs, watch the
lights of the city as we climb up the hill. There are only two other
people up top, a young couple busily laughing and kissing, too
engrossed in each other to care about the rest of the world. Me and
Helen were like that once. I thought she was the one. I still think
she was the one. She thought differently though.
At that point something very disconcerting happens. The bus pulls up
near the railway station and a familiar figure climbs on board. It’s
Helen. As though by thinking about her, I’ve somehow conjured her
up. She walks up the stairs, an uncertain smile on her face. It’s
been six months since we last saw each other.
She takes the seat beside me. For a while she’s silent and then she
speaks, her words echoing in the empty bus. “Alan told me you were
seeing a therapist.”
I smell betrayal in the air. “Alan’s a complete wanker. He’s just
“Maybe he’s worried about you?”
“Shit. You know what he’s like…”
She looks me straight in the eye. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
Reluctantly I nod my head. I wish the bus would go faster. Maybe I’ll
get off and walk the rest of the way. That seems good. I stand up and
suddenly there’s Helen’s hand grabbing my arm. “Steve. Wait. I
know things didn’t work out between us, but it doesn’t mean I
don’t care about what happens to you…”
I can’t think of anything to say. I pull my arm free and run
downstairs to get off the bus. The driver opens up the door and I’m
out into the cool night air. For a moment I’m lost between two
spaces. And then I could’ve sworn I hear a sneeze, a forceful but
feminine sound. It seems to drift from an open window at the top of
the bus. I look up and all I can see is the tip of Helen’s long
blonde hair. Was it her? For a moment everything else is forgotten and
I want to climb back onboard. But of course it’s too late. The bus
has pulled out into the traffic. I’m left standing on the pavement
on my own.
I tell Alice about my encounter on the bus. It’s been on my mind all
“Do you think it might change things, now that she knows?”
I give that question a lot of thought. I can hear the whirr of a
thermostat as the heating system kicks in. The air in this office
always smells of lemon. Eventually I have an answer. “It won’t
change anything. Helen may love me, but she’s not in love. I suppose
I knew that before it ended … I just didn’t want to admit it. I
suppose I hoped things might change.”
“And if they hadn’t?”
“I didn’t want her to go. I loved her. I still love her. But that
imbalance would’ve been too much eventually.”
“Was there someone else?”
“I don’t think so. No, I’m sure there wasn’t. Maybe now … I
mean it’s been almost half a year. She wanted us to be friends, to
keep in touch.” I shift on the couch. “I couldn’t do that. It
would’ve been too painful.”
Gently, Alice changes the subject. “Any more dreams since our last
I nod my head and try to cast my mind back. They all start differently,
different scenarios, different locations, but always the same ending.
Always waking up at that same point. I’m only twenty four. I could
be dreaming this same dream for the rest of my life. I realise I
haven’t told Alice what happened after I got off the bus. I know it
might be important. I’ll tell her in a minute, at the moment I’m
focussed on the dream.
For three consecutive nights I come home and find messages on my answer
phone. I don’t listen beyond the first line. Alan’s a bastard. I
can’t remember why I ever told him. Trust is a funny thing. I’m
starting to worry I trust Alice too much.
The fourth night there’s no message. Instead I find Helen sat on my
doorstep. She’s had her hair done since I last saw her. She still
wears the same perfume. The flat used to smell of mango when she was
living with me. It smelt that way for at least a month after she left.
She follows me inside. I can tell she’s nervous, it shows in the way
she rubs her chin.
“Would you like a coffee?”
“I’ll make it.” She pads off to the kitchen before I can protest.
Of course she knows where to find everything. I’ve forgotten that.
“Therapy? It sounds so serious. I keep feeling like I broke you or
Ten minutes have passed. I suppose we’ve both thawed out a bit,
literally and metaphorically. The coffee cup warms my hands. I’m
reluctant to give her answers, but I don’t want her to feel bad over
this for the rest of her life.
“I was having trouble sleeping. You know what I’m like. You always
needed your nine hours, I got by with six. Maybe it just caught up
with me. The night’s are very long. I could’ve gone to the doctor
and got some pills, but I didn’t want to.”
“Are you sleeping better now?” She’s watching me, looking for
signs on my face.
“These things take time. Alice made that clear from the start.”
“She’s the woman I’m seeing. She’s very good. She helps me to
relax. She knows when to ask questions, when to listen.”
Helen frowns. “You never liked it when I asked you questions. It
always used to bug you.”
“Alice is my psychiatrist. It’s her job.”
Helen’s finishes up her coffee. She’s looking around the room, as
though parts of her past are coming back to life. I can’t help
thinking how much I miss her. I know it’s over though. Maybe I’ve
been in denial all through the summer, but now I can sense it. Now
that she’s sat there in front of me.
“Have you … have you found someone else?” I suppose I have to ask.
She blushes. She won’t answer. “Steve, will you let me cook us
something? I’d like to stay a while, just to talk a bit more. I want
to know that you’re okay.”
“I’m okay.” The words tumble out, mechanical.
“Why did you let her in?”
I’ve had this nagging thought for a month now. What would happen if
Alice sneezed again? How would I react? Would it bother me? Would it
bother her? Of course it hasn’t happened yet, but it could…
I return to her question. “She was sat on the doorstep. I didn’t see
what else I could do.”
“You could’ve asked her to leave.”
I suppose. That hadn’t occurred to me at the time. Of course if I had
… well everything would be so different. I open my eyes and watch
Alice watching me. Maybe I’ll have no reason to keep coming now.
I’ve grown used to these Tuesday evening sessions. Alice always
wears white. Her hair is dark and it seems to shine under the lights
of her office. She’s ten years older than me.
“You could’ve asked her to leave.” Alice repeats the question.
“I suppose I owed her an explanation.”
“Did you tell her about the dream?”
“How could I have done that?”
I’m always wary of giving too much. I hate answering questions. But
I’d told Alice everything. Not at once, but gradually, over the
Alice uncaps her pen, ready to start writing. “What did you tell
There were three bottles of beer in the fridge. Helen declined, but I
got one for myself. I figured it would help me relax. I suppose I’m
often too passive. I don’t make decisions unless I have to. I roll
through life and see where it takes me.
The beer tasted good. I let Helen get to work with some pasta and
whatever vegetables she could find in the kitchen. I used to enjoy
cooking, but being single again has left me lazy. I’m starting to
live off convenience food.
There’s music on the stereo. I watch the night sky darken. I feel
completely blank. Occasionally I hear the clink of pans coming from
the kitchen. The smell of garlic permeates the flat.
Helen pops her head around the door. “It’ll be about another ten
minutes.” She looks
like the energy’s gone from her. Perhaps she’s beginning to regret
“I’m doing okay.” I make a vain attempt at reassuring her. “You
know I’m a big boy now. I can look after myself.”
“But therapy?” It’s that fact that she can’t get past.
“It’s good. We’re making progress. It’s not just about you and
me. It goes much deeper than that.”
“Really?” Suddenly she sounds intrigued, maybe reassured that she
might not be responsible for all my problems. I can’t mention the
dream though. And that’s at the root of everything.
“Can you tell me what you talk about? Is it like in the movies? I
always think therapy is such a North American concept.”
I laugh. “It’s not like the movies.”
Helen reaches out a hand, touches my shoulder. “Come on Steve, tell me
what it’s like.”
“I’m not sure…” To buy some time I disappear to the bathroom.
This evening is starting to weird me out. Everything feels a little
fuzzy, but that’s probably the beer. As I walk back to the kitchen I
freeze. For a moment I can’t believe what I’m hearing. It’s
I put far too much pepper in the sauce.”
I pinch myself. This should be where I wake up. But I’m not asleep.
This is not the dream. I run into the kitchen to confront Helen.
“What did you say?”
She doesn’t have to answer. There’s a look of surprise on her face. The jar from the spice rack is held half open, but her concentration is focussed elsewhere. “I … I had an accident with the pepper jar. I think I just ruined our meal.” She’s trying to smile, but her mouth won’t operate. Her nose is twitching. I reach out gently and take the jar from her, close off the lid and return it to the rack. The pasta continues to bubble away on the hob. I can see tiny grains of pepper on her upper lip.
“God, why am I always so clumsy?”
I can’t help myself. I gather her up in my arms. “It’s okay.
It’s only food.” I can feel her breathing coming in gulps. I’ve
not held her in six months.
“I’m sorry Steve. I’m so sorry.” I’m not sure if she’s
apologising for ruining the food or for everything that’s happened
between us. I think she’d have carried on apologising, but the cloud
of pepper has finally done its work. She twists away from me to
I can feel every muscle tense and then relax. The sound is wet and
harsh. It’s the same sound I remember floating down from the open
window of that bus.
“Damn, that stuff’s gone … gone right up my … hahhh-shoo
I guide her away from the kitchen. I can’t believe how aroused I feel.
There’s six months of needs waiting to be fulfilled, but it’s more
I lay her down on the couch. I’m feeling so hot I have to loosen my
shirt. It must be obvious what I’m thinking.
“Steve. We can’t,” Helen whispers.
But she sounds uncertain. Another sneeze interrupts her train of
thought. Then her hand is running up and down my thigh, feeling the
length of my cock. There’s a brief smile on her face as she realises
how hard I am.
I’ve unbuttoned her blouse. Her skin is pale and soft and inviting.
Her chest rises and falls with her troubled breathing.
“This is nuts.” Soon she’s naked and laughing. She’s got a
handkerchief bunched in her left hand, trying to clear her nose and
halt the sneezes. “I must look a right sight.”
I don’t say anything. I’m running my hands all over her, greedily
feeling the warmth of her smooth skin. I’m trying to transmit my
desire as I press my palms deeper. At the back of my mind I’m still
scared I’m going to wake up.
Two more sneezes ripple through her. She’s laughing again. I’m naked
now too. I move myself on top of her and she lets me come inside.
There’s moisture there. I feel my penis slide gently down against
her. I push back strands of her recently cut hair so I can see her
face. There’s still a few grains of pepper on her lip. I take the
handkerchief and gently wipe them away.
“You feel divine,” I whisper.
“Thank you.” She half chokes out her reply. I’m starting to thrust
inside her when another sneeze comes. She turns her head away.
For a split second I feel her vagina tighten around me. The sensation is
so intense, I almost come in that instant, but I manage to hold back.
I can tell there are more sneezes to come. I want to feel that again.
I want to fix that sensation in my head, make it last forever.
Helen has her eyes closed. She seems to be dreaming. She can probably no
more believe this is happening than me. I try and control my
movements. I want to stimulate her too. I listen for the tell-tale
signs in her breathing, but there’s too much else distracting her
“Damn. I can’t stop … I can’t stop sn- … heck-shooo!”
Again there’s that magic clench. An amazing warmth rolls through me. I’m about to lose all control and it feels so wonderful. Just hearing her breath getting faster and faster almost pushes me over the edge. I force myself to hold on just a moment longer.
“Ah…. ah….” Her next sneeze teases me, half coming, half
aborted, but I know it won’t be stopped. “Ah… ah-chewwww!”
Everything is released in that moment. I’m opened up and more exposed
than at any point on the psychiatrist’s couch. This is what I
needed. I feel like I know myself inside out. There’s nothing more
to know. My world is warm and vast and it encompasses everything.
Alice has stopped writing. She stopped a long time ago. The professional
mask has never slipped once from her face. She pauses at one point to
brush a stray strand of that shiny black hair, but otherwise nothing
is given away.
For a while the room is in complete silence. I don’t feel I have
anything more to add.
“So you’ve not had the dream since?” Alice asks eventually.
“And you and Helen?”
“Oh no. It’s over. I realise that now. I mean I realised it the
moment we were together in the flat. What happened later was just …
just a weird coincidence.”
“You think so?” Alice arches an eyebrow.
Of course there’s still questions, but I’ve had several nights of
untroubled sleep now. I sense the dream is over. I enjoy these Tuesday
sessions, but I don’t think I need them anymore. It’s kind of
weird to think of all I’ve shared with Alice. I’d like to see her
again sometime, but I know that won’t happen. There’s rules and
ethics and standards.
And if she had ever sneezed again, I really don’t know what I’d have