Reflected in the carriage window was a dark-haired young woman. She seemed to be smiling at me. Her face was insubstantial, a ripple on the glass. Then, the sun was out again, and I had to squint to see anything. I turned to look across the carriage. Apart from an elderly couple sat two seats ahead of me, it was empty. Yet I was certain I could smell a faint whiff of perfume that hadn't been there a moment ago.
I stood up to investigate further, stumbling as the train jolted on the rails. There was no one else here and no sign that anyone had even passed through the carriage. Feeling foolish, I sat back down again. Maybe the bright snow and the glare of the sun were distorting my sight, playing tricks on my senses.
I returned to studying the scenery. It was almost a month since I'd arrived in New Zealand from a cold English winter. In three days time I'd be flying back home. In the meantime, there still seemed to be so much that I hadn't seen. I wanted to experience every moment to the full.
Eventually, the train slowed again as it approached the final stop before Greymouth. I picked up my bag, ready to get off. Outside, the small platform was deserted. I waited a moment, watching as the train disappeared up the track. Across the distant horizon, the mountains were now shrouded in mist. I breathed the clean air and headed into town.
It was dusk. Streetlights glowed a soft amber. From a bar drifted voices and a jukebox playing music. Next door was a hotel, decked out like a wild west saloon. I pushed back swing doors to enter. Sat behind the desk at reception was an elderly man reading a newspaper. He was so engrossed in whatever he was reading that he hadn't noticed my arrival. I cleared my throat to get his attention. At last, he looked up from his paper. I asked if he had any rooms available.
'Hmm, now let me see.'
The man turned to consult the rack behind him where several keys hung from little hooks on the wall. Every action seemed to take an age. Eventually, he turned back to face me.
'Seems like all the rooms are taken I'm afraid. One of the backpacker dorms is free though. It's fairly basic, but …'
I shrugged my shoulders. I was tired. I just needed somewhere to sleep.
'Are you two together?'
It was only then that I realized I wasn't alone. There was a young woman stood behind me. How long had she been there?
I shook my head.
The man frowned, directing his attention to the woman. 'You looking for a room too?'
'Yes,' she replied softly.
'Well as I was telling this gentlemen we don't have any rooms free - just a dorm out at the back.'
I stared blankly. The woman was tall, with striking blue eyes and long dark hair. She looked uncannily like the person I'd seen on the train. But it couldn't be! I'd been the only person to get off the train here.
'Look, I'll try and find somewhere else to stay. You can take the room.'
The woman laughed. 'This is the only hotel in town.'
The man behind the counter nodded. 'She's right. And it's fifty K's to the next town.'
And the last train had just left without me on it. 'Oh.'
'It's okay. I'm quite prepared to share.'
'Well, if you're sure….'
And so after we'd paid a deposit, the old man led us to the back of the hotel. The room had three bunk beds. Bedding was piled loosely on top of a small wooden table. The walls were bare, painted a pale green that was chipped and fading. It looked disconcertingly like the interior of one of the prefab huts from my junior school. The old man sorted out two sets of keys for us and then shuffled back to his desk.
The woman's name was Claire. She was American, but like me she had been travelling down under for several weeks. She seemed unfazed by our situation, more interested in studying the view from the window than anything else.
'The mountains are so beautiful. I love to watch the shadows as night falls. Everything out here is so vibrant. I think it must be all the rain they get.'
I started to ask whether she'd arrived on the train, but she'd launched into another monologue about her love for the scenic Westland. I was only half following the conversation, tired from a full day's travelling. I noticed that between sentences she seemed to have trouble breathing, sniffling and sucking in air through her mouth. Eventually she had to stop to pull out a small handkerchief and blow her nose. She explained that somewhere on her travels she'd managed to pick up a bad cold.
'I've been trying to shake it off for simply ages.' She reached across to her rucksack and pulled out a small cardboard package. 'I got this stuff from a health store in Auckland yesterday. It's based on an old Maori ritual. You light these candles and the scent is supposed to clear the sinuses.' She stared down at the little box. 'Most likely it'll just make me sneeze.'
Suddenly I was fully awake. I'd always had a strange fascination for watching women sneeze. I could hardly believe what I'd stumbled upon.
Claire smiled at me. 'You know, I always kind of feel there's something sexy about sneezing.'
It came out so deadpan, like she could read my mind. Mutely, I nodded.
'Cool. Let's try it.'
The candles were shaped like miniature bowls with intricate Maori designs imprinted into the wax. Claire placed them carefully around the room.
'Shall I turn out the light? We can get some atmosphere going.'
'Sure.' She bent low to light a second candle. I could sense a definite peppery aroma begin to permeate the room.
Claire smiled, her nose twitching. 'This stuff's certainly having an effect. I can feel … uh, yes …. whew…'
For a moment she stood motionless, all her attention focussed on halting an impending sneeze. She had her forefinger pressed tightly against the base of her nose. Across from us moonlight briefly outlined the mountains. There was magic in the air.
'Damn, it tickles so bad.' Her breath now came in irregular gasps.
I moved towards her, any inhibitions gone. It seemed I'd somehow drifted into a new universe. This was so unlike my life back home. Here anything was possible.
'You just need to let it come out. It's the only way.' Gently I took her hand and pulled it away from under her nose.
'Hey, that's not fair,' Claire protested. There was a brief grin on her face and then it was gone as she blinked rapidly and sucked in more air. 'Ooh… Ah… ah… ah.'
I watched as she stood in the thrall of a sneeze that was tantalisingly stuck inside her.
'This is torture.'
'Exquisite torture,' I whispered to myself.
'Damn, I… uh… huh... I really wanna sneeze now.'
'You're too uptight. You have to relax. Sit down a moment.'
Gently, I directed her to one of the beds. From behind I slowly started to massage her shoulders. At first I could feel her muscles tighten, then gradually they relaxed. Her dark hair shone in the moonlight.
She issued a low moan as her chest loosened. Then her body tensed dramatically, as from out of nowhere the first sneeze finally came.
'Um, thanks. I think I'm - Eeeeesssheew - I think I'm sufficiently relaxed now.' She barely had the sentence out before she had to clamp a hand over her mouth to catch another sneeze. 'Huh-hummph!'
She giggled. 'Now look what you've done. I'll probably never stop now.'
The smoke from the candles had fogged up most of the room.
'Maybe, but like you said, sneezing is sexy.'
'I guess so.' She didn't sound so convinced now. Her eyes were watery and her nose twitched in irritation at the smoke. 'Uh oh, here we go again.' She turned her head to one side. 'Ah-Ha-Ischooo…. Huhchhhee…. Hachummmph!'
The sneezes came in waves of two or three. I had my hands around her, vicariously experiencing every spasm of her body.
For a while she seemed to be in the grip of a monumental sneezing fit. It started softly, but gradually built in momentum. There was something undoubtedly erotic in the fiercely expelled energy that the scented aroma had provoked. When the sneezes finally subsided Claire seemed more animated than ever.
'Wow. That was something else. I sure feel better for that.' She pulled out her handkerchief and blew her nose with vigour. 'Hey you weren't joking - that stuff really turns you on!'
I nodded, suddenly embarrassed.
She put her arm around me, so close I could smell her perfume. There was something familiar about the smell, but I was too excited to give it a second thought. Then, she moved her hand down to gently squeeze my penis. I shivered with anticipation.
'Looks like there's more work to be done here.'
She deliberately leant towards one of the candles and inhaled strongly. The flame flickered, almost extinguished and then grew strong again.
'Hey, I like your style,' I joked.
'Well I'm not interested in faking a performance.'
She began to work on unbuttoning my trousers. Somewhere inside, the old me felt a wave of panic, but there was too much adrenaline pumping through my body now. I couldn't have backed off, even if I'd wanted to. I hastily pulled my top off and then reached across to help Claire undress.
We faced each other naked. Gently, Claire coaxed my penis inside her.
'I don't just want to be fucked … I want us to feel something,' she whispered.
I held my arms tightly against her back. I never wanted to let go. I could feel her breasts as they pushed against me when she breathed. For a moment we tried to kiss, but Claire had to pull away as the first of a new wave of sneezes racked her body.
'Aachhhoooo…. hehe, there's n-no …. Hatcheeeeew … there's no stopping me now. Huh-ashhheeew!'
Her head shook in time to the sneezes. A stray blob of wax from one of the candles turned soft in the heat and fell towards the flame. I felt myself harden inside her.
She smiled. 'Uh ... mmm … yes, come on. Come on.'
The motion of her sneezes seemed to provide an additional rhythm to our lovemaking.
'Ha-ishooo … Eeeeessheew …. Ishoooo.'
Between sneezes, I pushed back loose strands of hair that had fallen across her face. Her eyes watched me eagerly. I felt a momentary disquiet, but it was too late. I was on the brink of fulfillment. The room had shrunk to a single point of light. We were fused by the moment, bonded like the wax in the candles. I sensed a final sneeze building up within her.
I was helpless now.
She was helpless too.
I awaited the release with desperate longing, as if every moment of my life had been spent anticipating this event.
After an agonizing age it finally arrived.
'Huh …Ha …ISCHOOOOO!'
Everything came together in that one moment. Claire held me tight inside her and then pulled away. The room was full of shadows again. The magic had gone. Awkwardly, I stumbled onto one of the other beds. Opposite me I could hear Claire blowing her nose fiercely. I suddenly felt incredibly tired. It was an impossible effort to keep my eyes open.
I slept much longer than usual that night. When I woke, the sun was shining brightly through the window . I felt hollow inside, disorientated from a series of strange dreams. I dressed hastily. Something felt wrong… and then I remembered Claire. Could she have left already? There was no sign that any of the other beds had been slept in. I scanned the room in vain. Nothing but bare walls and pealing paint. Across from me the rest of the bedding was untouched. I traced my fingers across the floor, expecting to find remnants of wax from the candles, but there was nothing. I shook my head.
When I went to return my key, there was a blonde woman sat on reception. I asked if I could speak to the old man, but it turned out he'd gone off fishing for the day.
'Do you know if a young woman checked out earlier today?'
She shook her head. 'Not since I've been on duty.'
I peered at the arrangement of keys behind her, but there were no clues there. Frustrated, I walked out into the street, blinking to adjust to the light. A car ran past. Opposite me, two tourists studied a road map. I thought I heard one of them sneeze. Then I realised the sound had come from behind me. I turned hastily, but there was no one there. Probably just the wind, I decided. It was time to move on. The next train was due in half an hour. Reluctantly, I set off towards the station.