Beyond the wood, beyond the seas, beyond the highest of all mountains,
there lived a frightful dragon….
Called Gerald. Gerald had a great cave with all the mod cons. Phone, TV and computer. It had central heating – very useful in winter when it got distinctly nippy and uncomfy while he tried to hibernate. (Cold toes are no joke when it’s for five months.)
His kitchen shined with chrome and smooth, masculine contours. Perrier water and haute cuisine (microwaveable in just four minutes!) filled his fridge. Subtle lighting and cushions and throws. Smooth saxophone music on the high-fi.
Gerald had all that a dragon could want- he even had aspirations to being a writer, and a very friendly group on the Net was giving him more confidence all the time.
But Gerald was frightful. He was frightful for one reason.
He had frightful breath. And, as I’m sure you may be aware, there is nothing more distracting than trying to hold a conversation with someone whose breath makes one want to apologise and leave very quickly. What was worse, was that being of a delicate and sensitive nature, Gerald was all too aware of this problem.
So poor Gerald could only hold ‘conversations’ via his computer.
His friends laughed at him (downwind) when they met at the Sulphur Pits mini-mart. Browsing along the volcanic rocks and larval snacks, they would pass advice with all the encompassing and omnipotent wisdom of the unafflicted.
“What you need to do is to look after your teeth more,” Jerry cheerfully informed him, as he tossed another ten packets of Sweet Shale (“Mmmmm, You’ll Wail for Shale!”) into his trolley.
“Oh, no- invest in mouthwash.”
“Tiny corks to stop up your breath ducts!”
And they all roared with laughter- from the other side of the counter, with the air conditioning unit between them and Gerald.
He smiled slightly, said goodbye, paid for his goods, and left quickly. They never saw the single tear roll down his face and sizzle from his nose.
Gerald was all too aware of what exactly the problem was. His teeth were in perfect working order- he saw the dragon dentist regularly (and that man was gentleman enough to wear a gas-mask, and to forebear making any comments), and he flossed, gummed, minted, and mouth-washed more in one day than his friends would do in a month. His dental hygiene routine was as intricate and complex as any Byzantine system of law and order, or any feverish scheme of Machiavelli’s. He executed this plan with all the care and method of an army general.
But the problem was not actually in his mouth. He suffered a rare and genetic dragon complaint. His smoke ducts were unfortunately exposed to the Sulphur Pouches in his cheeks, and this meant that the awful smell was of not his own doing.
A dragon must chew sulphurous rock in order to make ignition with the flame gasses produced in his fourth stomach- the Fire Stomach. And a dragon that never flames off at all with explode from the build-up of gasses (which do not smell nice, either). There is normally a thick wall of flame-retardant skin between the Sulphur Pouches in a dragon’s cheeks and the tiny network of fine passages through which the vapours pass to exit from the snout. This wall of skin in Gerald was holed, and had been from hatching.
The mixture of residue from sulphur rocks and from smoke vapours made his life a misery and a permanent embarrassment.
The operation to stop up the gaps was far too expensive to even contemplate.
So Gerald, on this evening, dined alone as he had always done. After the smoked salmon terrine, Melba toast and fruit salad (he ate lightly), he sat at the polished table, and regarded the sulphur rocks with distaste, bordering on loathing.
He only ate the very minimum amount, and only flamed as a necessity. He tried not to exacerbate matters.
Over and over in his head he heard the taunts, the jibs and the jokes, and more and more, louder and louder, the laughter. It wasn’t even as if it was his fault.
With a cry he swept the rocks off the table, catching the fine china in the process, and sending the whole lot smashing to the floor. He put his head in his claws and wept bitterly.
No one understood and no one cared.
Half an hour later, he crawled from his chair to the floor, and examined the damage with a resurgence of tears. That had been his grandmother’s china. Her lovely Chinese china. Under the shards and crumbs he found the sulphur rocks- just the three. He plucked them up one at a time, and with more, unheeded tears falling down his cheeks, he chewed them and flamed discreetly, cradling the precious- and now very broken- family heirlooms.
He was awakened from his stunned misery by a beeping. Dragons being given very good deals on telephone rates (only being active seven months a year makes them want to catch up a lot when they are around- and gives the telephone companies a steady income), he normally left his computer on when he was in, and set to emit a sound when a new e-mail arrived.
He rose, and carefully setting the pieces on the sideboard, he went into his cosy study where he wrote and did most of his thinking. Since he had a lot of time on his own, he did a lot of thinking.
The e-mail was from a member of his writing group. She wrote to say how much she had enjoyed his latest effort, and how much she admired his melancholy but romantic style.
And did he ICQ?
He did, and soon they were ‘chatting’ on-line. Gerald soon forgot the mess yet to be cleaned up, and even the permanent cloud of embarrassment normally hanging over his head lifted to allow a small ray of happiness through. He so loved to communicate.
It soon transpired that she lived not far from him, and after she shyly suggested that they meet, he felt a wild surge of hope. Could he possibly have found a friend on the same wavelength? But then his heart sank, as he remembered a very immediate reason why he could not meet her face to face.
However, she would brook no excuse, and after setting a place and time and date, she added
“Great, see you there,” and signed off before he could say no.
He tried to mail her to say he couldn’t possibly, but it was returned, as her address was ‘unavailable’. He remembered she would be changing addresses as she was switching ISPs, and with a groan, he also recalled how she had said she would give him the new address at their meeting.
Gerald may have had frightful breath, but he did not have frightful manners, and he would rather die than let a lady down. So he did the bravest thing he had ever possibly done. He began to prepare to go out on what was possibly his first real ‘date’ of any sort.
What he would wear was no problem- his smart suit. And he would take a portfolio of his work. He’d love to have her cast an outsider’s eye over it- that is, if she didn’t run away from the stink first.
His shoulders slumped as he remembered this, and he glumly pondered what he should do about that. The only solution was XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX Strong Mints. They were his emergency stop gap and breath suppressers when he had important business meetings he could not avoid.
On the day in question, he rose in good time, having gone to bed early to avoid unsightly bags under the eyes. He showered and spruced, and dressed carefully. A fresh carnation in his buttonhole, his portfolio under his arm, and a mouthful of mints. He locked up his cave and set out.
On the way, he bought a fine bunch of flowers at a florist who politely squirted air-freshener after he left.
Once he made the railway station, he waited under the main clock with a hopeful air. And time passed. And passed and passed. The bunch wilted visibly. He thought this fine proof of his awful breath. He felt hot and starched in the suit, and he was getting funny and suspicious looks. He stuck his head further into his collar, and wished, how he wished, that he hadn’t made this awful mistake. He miserably chewed his way through the entire supply of mints, then panicked when he realised he didn’t have any more to cover his appalling breath, should she arrive. He was just on the brink of giving up and running away, back to the mountains, back to what was safe and known, when a brisk and happy voice said
“Oh, how lovely! They are for me, aren’t they?”
He turned and saw- the loveliest dragon he had even set eyes on. Her scales were of a deep and translucent green, and her nose-ridges were crinkled in just the cutest way… he must have looked a twit, gazing at her, when something wet licked him on the leg. He looked down, and saw a Golden Retriever in full harness. His gaze shot up to her face again. Her eyes were glazed; she was quite blind.
“Er- how did you- the flowers?” his voice trailed off. Oh, boy, that was lame. He thought, furiously.
But she laughed. “That’s Ok. I smelled them!”
“Oh? Oh!” he joined her tinkling laughter with a nervous titter. “I thought you’d never come!” he added.
She wrinkled her nose still further. “But I’m on time! At least, I thought I was.”
He blinked; then it all came back to him. “Of course! I forgot my watch! And I didn’t take into account that I got up earlier today! But the clock here-” he leaned out to stare at its large and immobile face.
She laughed again “- has been broken for years! Oh, you are sweet- just like your heroes in your stories,” she added, shyly.
He scuffed his foot, feeling foolish.
They might have stood there all day, had not the dog tugged urgently at his harness.
“Oh! I’m sorry! I’ve got to walk him!” she said, so he took her arm, and they strolled to the park. As he guided her, the dog ran rampant over the lovely landscape. Gerald found himself wishing she could also enjoy the spring scenery.
“Uh, so- how do you manage a computer if you’re-”
“Blind? You can say that word, you know! I have a vocal interface. But it doesn’t do justice to your work!”
They spent the afternoon eating sandwiches by the lake, as he read her some of his work. She offered criticism and advice. He made notes.
And not once did she mention his breath. He worried that his mints must have worn off, and she was being polite, so as they wandered some more, he blurted out,
“My breath doesn’t offend you?”
She stopped, surprised. She sniffed.
“It is a little pungent. You suffer from Oat’s syndrome, don’t you?”
He found her honesty breathtaking. “Yes, but how?” he bumbled.
She smiled. “My grandfather suffered from it. But there wasn’t the treatment in those days. He started the main Oat’s Trust in the hope to fund research into it. His vision paid off- the doctor who found a permanent, safe cure was funded by the Trust.”
“Treatment,” Gerald muttered morosely. “That’s a little out of my range.”
She seemed to suffer with him for a second or two, before she brightened.
“Hey! I’m sure you could benefit somehow! We’ll look into it! In the meantime, don’t be so afraid! You’re beautiful inside! And that’s what counts. Your stories touch people in the nicest of ways. Imagine what it’s like trying to flame without being sure where it’s going- or even if you might end up frying your dog!” she giggled, and he joined in.
Passers-by, while giving them a wide berth, found their mouths twitching with the infectious humour.
And what happened then? Well, what do you think? Didn’t Gerald and his good friend deserve some happiness?
The creative world came, in years to come, to fete the writer of tender novels and his gentle (and musical- oh, yes, she played the saxophone) wife. When they were assembled at special gatherings, he would flash his white, white teeth and smile a secret smile for the lady who had made this possible. And though she never saw that smile, she always felt it.
He wasn’t, after all, all that frightful, was he?
A warm-hearted, but frightful dragon discovers that friends and love really can overcome the most… pongy.. of obstacles.