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“There’s always this magnificent pause, just for a second, maybe less, and then she just whispers, ‘God, I put far too much pepper in the sauce.’” 

“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 was around.”

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 frustration?”

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 her anyway.”

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 explain why.

“I never told her, no. I didn’t want to. I mean I didn’t know how she’d react.”

“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 story.”

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?” she prompts.

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 resolve themselves.

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 stirring trouble.”

“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 week.

“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 session?”

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 something.”

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 weeks.

Alice uncaps her pen, ready to start writing. “What did you tell her?”


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 having come.

“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 those words…  

“God, 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 sneeze.


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 … nose!”

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 than that.

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.

“Ha-chewww! Hhhuh-cheww!”

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 right now.

“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.

“Well, maybe…”

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 felt.