Inside a Writer's Mind

Inside a Writer's Mind
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” -- Oscar Wilde

Short Story: Generations

A warning: this story contains occasional strong language.
(Your feedback, critical, favourable or otherwise, is very much appreciated and will help me to further refine and develop this story and those that I write in the future. Thank you in anticipation. J.C.)

Copyright © 2012 by J.C. Phalene



J.C. Phalene

‘Daddy! When we get there will you listen to my story?’ 

I nodded. ‘Yes darling.’

My daughter was so excited, that’s the only reason we went. Normally I wouldn’t go near the place. Never had in Sydney. Or in the two years since we’d moved.  

When I was a kid, growing up, we went. Sometimes. My parents took me. Once a month or so on Dad’s pay day; he was never angry when we went there. Mum wore her best dress and a neatly pressed smile. ‘No dirty dishes,’ she’d say. 

But my parents were ‘uneducated’ -– Penelope always made it sound like a contagious disease -– unaware of things like refined sugar and trans-fatty acids, the exploitation of primary producers and cheap labour. 

‘Ah rubbish,’ Dad said. His standard response to anything like that he read in the paper or saw on television. ‘Just giving people what they want, cheap. That’s all. These journalists are just full of themselves. Just rude.  Bloody rude! That’s all.’ 

But Poppy, my daughter, was thrilled. So we went. 

As we drove past she’d said, ‘Can we dad? Please! Mum never lets me. Can we just this once?’

I swung around the roundabout and veered into the convenient traffic funnel, which made access from either lane easy, skimming fast food junkies from both directions of the traffic flow. 

We couldn’t have flashing lights outside the local school where I taught, because of limited roads funding. But a double traffic island entrance to a global fast food chain, facilitating local consumption of processed sugar and saturated fat –- no problem. 

We pulled up and Poppy leaped out. For her, the colours, the smiling painted plastic faces, the climbing ladders, tubes and tunnels, and synthetic floor, were representative of something she was not normally privy to. 

Like my parents she made no connection between the carefully planned fun-land in front of her and the epidemic of childhood obesity raging through her school, the town and the western world. On the other side of the counter, local kids, chopping and mincing working class ideals to feed the gormandising capitalist giant.

Don’t even think lecture I told myself. Just enjoy a father daughter outing while your wife is at the gym. 

In the car-park a boxy old Volkswagen van pulled in next to us, hand-painted lime green and dotted with blooming pink and purple flowers. And written in large orange letters across the rear end: MAKE LOVE FUCK WAR.

A couple of backpackers climbed out. Laughing. They were young. Early twenties. Full of life.

The girl swung her backpack, covered in flags and peace symbol button-badges, onto her shoulder. She smiled at Poppy, stood there clutching her doll under her arm. The doll Dad had given her which she loved. Carried everywhere. Much to Penelope’s irritation. 

The four of us walked toward the restaurant side by side. ‘Are you taking dolly for a hamburger?’ the young woman asked in a sing-song Dutch accent. The scent of patchouli oil briefly perceptible, before being subsumed by the odours of frying bovine and onions.

My daughter smiled a smile to rival the red and yellow buffoon by the door and nodded. Her missing front milk tooth -- acquired recently for a good price by the tooth fairy –- conspicuous in its absence. The Tooth Fairy. Another practice I’d picked up from my parents that Penelope didn’t approve of –- ‘just perpetuating a belief in childhood fantasies.’ 

The Dutch girl’s boyfriend held the door open for us with his right hand. In his left he held a laptop computer carry-bag.

Their dreadlocks and vibrant hippy garb in stark contrast to the drab country conservativeness of the locals that filled the glass and plastic burger shed. I smiled and nodded at the out of place pair as I stepped inside with my daughter. 

They reminded me of Penny and me. A lifetime ago. When I’d first taken her home from uni in Sydney to the hayseed-home-town I’d grown up in. And couldn’t wait to get away from.  (A slightly larger version of which I now found myself teaching high school English in, twenty years later, so Penelope could get her foot on the next career wrung. Editor-in-Chief.)  A warped sense of filial duty drawing me back there once a year for a decade, as though attached to some sort of invisible lead or string. A yo yo with an annual roll-out and rewind. 

After Mum died I only took Penelope back with me twice. The first time Dad was polite. The second visit he spent criticising ‘young people.’ The pointlessness of their college education. Their laziness. Their high minded ideas, selfish ways and rudeness. 

Penny hated him as I knew she would. In truth so did I. But I felt I owed it to Mum to keep trying. I lost count of the number of trips I made, just hoping and praying that when I’d get there it’d be different. It never was. 

Just once I wanted him to stop criticising and complaining and pay attention to me. To ask about my life. About my plans. My studies. At least my work. To maybe hint he was proud.

But his questions were always designed to find fault or weakness: ‘What’s the point of studying philosophy? Who’s gonna pay a fella to talk into the mirror?’

‘What’s the point indeed?’ Penny had asked rhetorically – it’s funny that they’d both asked me the same question.  Maybe they had more in common than they or I realised.

‘I’m sorry, but I’m not willing to go out there with you anymore,’ penny said.

After a while, neither was I.

A phone call was enough. Easier to go through the motions. 

Standing in line, my daughter’s dark eyes glinted like those of the plastic jester that greeted us. She asked about the menu options and I explained. Both of us, I think, feeling a little out of place in this most foreign and familiar of fast food outlets.

After I’d finished describing what a ‘cheery repast’ was, and answering honestly that I didn’t know why it was called that –- ‘No I don’t think you’ll smile more if you eat it all’ –- I gave her a few moments to decide.

I looked around guiltily for anyone my wife might know, who might betray my indiscretion. 

The pimply service attendant took my money and we sat down with our trays of multicoloured packaging, like two children on a mini Christmas morning: plastic straws and lids, wax paper cups and wrapping, cardboard and colouring-mats.

I watched my daughter consume her first cheesy-burger.

After she’d chewed through a third of it, she asked me, ‘Daddy do you want me to tell you about what happened at school now?’

‘Yes darling.’ I nodded, picking at my fries.

After we’d had Poppy, Dad came to us a few times. Penny was never keen to have him, or to leave him alone with Poppy. Ironically she’d said him taking Poppy for fast food was the least of her concerns.

‘Yeah, yeah. Nothing wrong with it though,’ Dad would say. Whenever I left strict instructions not to give her junk food on the couple of occasions we asked him to mind her. 

He couldn’t even humour me for a few days. Not even with something small like that, he couldn’t just shut up and try and enjoy the moment.   

That’s when I noticed the old man limp into the restaurant. The scowl on his face reminded me of my father. He was with a boy in his late teens -– a skinny build, rounded shoulders and averted eyes –- with the hesitant expression of someone who carried the weight of constant criticism. I knew the look. The symptoms. And had been working on a cure for a similar affliction. They sat down opposite each other, a few tables away, adjacent to the Dutch couple. 

The old man spied the backpackers. Their table devoid of food, adorned with laptop, guidebook and papers. And drew the wrinkled corners of his face in to a puckered sneer. I watched him mumbling under his breath.

The young Dutchman and his girlfriend sat side by side at a table for four, speaking Dutch. They’d put their bags on the floor under their table. One backpack had fallen out into the aisle between tables, the shoulder straps hung provocatively close to the old man’s leg; an invasion of his territory. 

He looked at them and their bags several times before he spoke, his bottom lip quivering increasingly rapidly as though building momentum. ‘It’s bloody rude you know.  You people come in here and leave your backpacks lying around. And you use those bloody things and don’t buy nothing. It’s bloody rude I tell you.’

The Dutch couple looked up open-mouthed.

‘Are you talking to us?’ asked the girl, with the same sing-songy politeness she’d used with my daughter. It seemed to further antagonise the old man.   

He raised his brows and launched into a tirade about young people, and travellers, and their selfishness.  ‘Of course I’m talking to you! You’re taking up all that space with that thing and there’s not enough room for anyone else. I’ve a mind to complain to the manager.’  His palms planted on the melamine table top like a pit bull’s paws.    

On the young couples’ faces confused anxious expressions; unable to understand why their presence had inspired such viciousness in the old man.

The young Dutchman tried to say something but the old man cut him off. 

‘I don’t want to hear it. It’s rude, pure and simple. No excuse for it. Rudeness!’

‘Daddy? Did you hear what I said?’
‘Yes darling. Just a minute.’

The old man’s son was hunched down over his food, scoffing it silently as the old man engaged an old woman at a nearby table. Another local. And equally surly judging by her facial expression. ‘What-do-you-think?’ he spat. At a volume half the restaurant could hear, speaking as though they sat at their kitchen table. 

‘I agree,’ she said, nodding vigorously. ‘They come in here like they own the place. Like a lot of young people today.’ 

Opposite her, two bloated children, around the same age as my daughter, stuffed their flabby faces with fries. 

‘It’s damn rude,’ the old man continued. ‘Unbelievable.  Every time I come here it’s the same thing. I’m gonna complain about ‘em this time.’ The old man’s son hung his head mutely and stared at his father’s hands.

‘Go on, I think you should. They got no right.’ The old woman encouraged him. Her grandchildren hunched over, sheepishly chewing on fries, the expression in their eyes suggested they were no strangers to her serrated tones.  As though she sought to destroy in the young what had gone unnurtured in herself.

A promise unfulfilled, like a rosebud trodden on.   

The old man’s son got up without a word and took his plastic tray to the bin, dumped the contents in and traipsed out through the glass doors without looking back.

The old man gestured to the car-park with a crooked thumb. ‘My son gets embarrassed,’ he said with a smirk to the old woman, ignoring the backpackers for the moment. ‘I reckon I got a right to say what I think. Don’t you?’  He picked up a fry and chewed it exaggeratedly.

 ‘I agree,’ she said. ‘You say it, you say it.’ Excited by the prospect of their united front against the foreign youths with the backpack and the laptop computer.

The young couple spoke in hushed voices to each other in Dutch. The girl’s face now flushed red as the static joker’s painted cheeks.

‘Right,’ said the old man getting up with a groan and hobbling towards the glass doors. Appearing more contented than when he’d walked in; seemingly forgetting his outrage at the backpackers of a few moments before.   

Keen to carry on the fight, the old lady left her pudgy charges guzzling cola, to go to the counter and ask for the manager. She stood there shifting her wait from foot to foot like a child waiting for an ice cream cone. A young man about the same age as the backpackers, with acne and wearing a hairnet, trudged to the counter where the old woman stood. She did her best to engage his interest in ejecting or at least berating the young European couple.

I was in the process of getting up to go over and give the other side of the story, their defence, when I noticed my daughter crying.

‘What’s wrong darling?’ I asked, reaching for her hand. 

She pulled away. Shaking her head. Her tears tracking zigzaggedly down her cheeks in response.

‘You never listen Daddy!’ she shouted. ‘You promised when we got here you’d listen to my story. But you didn’t. You never listen to me, really...’

I nodded.  


Copyright © 2012 by J.C. Phalene

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy my novel: Seventeen Summers.


  1. Very interesting. I grew up playing on McDonalds playgrounds, I think they have had to take the playgrounds out of the restaurants now. I found the idea of the father not listening to his daughter very interesting. I've spent a lot of time with my nephews takng them out to eat. I've always enjoyed having the chance to talk with them over meals. They are at the age now where listening to music and playing video games take up so much of there time (even at the table) and getting them to talk is almost impossible. Is your story based on where you live? We don't get a lot of tourists here Dutch or otherwise, but I think whereever there are people there are people who judge and look down on other people.

    1. Thanks very much Douglas for taking the time to read my story and leave a comment. I appreciate it. The story is loosely based on an incident I observed in a country town where I used to live (I now live in Sydney -- lots of difference here). I agree with your point about people judging others; maybe it started as a self preservation mechanism, but I think we'd all live better these days with less judgment, and more acceptance and kindness. All the best. J.C.