‘The thing I love about fiction’, said Mr Woolf, over breakfast; the rustling of his newspapers providing familiar music to the meal, ‘is that it allows one to tell essential truths without concerning oneself with the particulars.’
He turned a page, having, apparently, said his peace. Emily Woolf, who was just seventeen but already – or so she’d like to think – wise beyond her years, suppressed a sigh. Anyone listening to him, she thought, in between mouthfuls of soggy cornflakes, would think he did something far more important at work than just make up stories. But she didn’t say it. Instead she smiled, and she nodded, and she went back to finishing breakfast.
The Woolf family’s breakfast table was as it always was: Mr Woolf was sat, at the head of the table with a tabloid spread out so as to obscure his face; Mrs Woolf was at her laptop, scrolling through her social media feed, clicking on news stories, more often than not; Mike Woolf – their eldest son – was on his smartphone, reading the gossip columns he helped write; and little Maxie Woolf was on his tablet, watching cartoons and, in between, Newsblip, which was the channel’s children’s news show. Which left Emily Woolf, alone, unplugged, and dreading the day ahead.
‘You see, here’, said Mr Woolf, slapping down his paper on the table triumphantly, ‘you think there really was a terrorist attack at the Brookes Shopping Centre?’
Emily stayed quiet, hoping that the question would turn out to be rhetorical. It was not. She slurped her tea, before managing:
‘I don’t know, dad. Do you want me to check on my way to College?’
Mr Woolf furrowed his brow, paused for a second and then, with an unmistakable tone of self-satisfaction, replied:
‘No, dear, no. Of course there was no terrorist attack at the Brookes Shopping Centre’, (Emily Woolf made a note to check, nonetheless, on her way to College), ‘rather, the story, as they say, is symbolic. It is not meant to tell you what happened, and where, and when, but, rather, to tell you something essential – in this case – about the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in our country. Now, what do you think the author is trying to say by making the attack take place at a shopping centre rather than at, say, a place of worship?’
Emily Woolf thought on this, for a second, half-wishing she had her own phone at hand, so she could’ve pretended to be absorbed in it.
‘I don’t know’, she admitted, to which Mr Woolf feigned disappointment, grinned, and then spoke.
Mr Woolf loved to speak.
Emily Woolf had left her phone at home. This way, if she kept her head down low, and left school as soon as school was over, she wouldn’t have to deal with it. Wouldn’t have to deal with them.
Well, she thought, clutching at straws, only six more hours to go.
Long after his youngest son and his wife had left for school – for she worked there, teaching Physics – and long after his eldest son had left for his internship, and long after his daughter had caught the bus to College, Mr Woolf was still sat, at the breakfast table, sipping coffee. It was his fourth cup.
It wasn’t that he hated his job, he reasoned with himself. Yes, sure, he had wanted to become an author; doesn’t every young man? But a journalist is the same thing as an author nowadays and besides, he had a family to support.
Mr Woolf worked, indirectly, for the government. It was his job to create stories – that is to say ‘noise’ – on the days when a piece of news unfavourable to the powers that be was set to go to print. The stories didn’t have to be true, of course. In fact, the overwhelming majority of them weren’t. Salacious, headline-grabbing, enthralling news stories rarely cropped up when they were needed. So, instead, it was the job of people like Mr Woolf to make them up. Readers knew they were lies, of course; the hope wasn’t to fool the public, but, rather, to drown out the truth in a sea of the false.
Mr Woolf liked making things up. Liked reporting what he knew to be true, rather than what could be construed from the events. His only lament, really, was his lack of scope.
How was he to tell essential truths, in less than two thousand words?
On her coffee break, in the teachers’ lounge, Mrs Woolf read a story about the dangers of GM crops which she knew was made up.
At his desk, in search for inspiration, Mike Woolf read a story about a certain celebrity’s fall-from-grace which he knew was made up.
In the back of Mrs Woolf’s car, on his way home from school, little Maxie Woolf watched a report on the charity work done by such-and-such kids which he knew was made up.
Don’t look up, thought Emily Woolf to herself, as, quickly, she descended the stairs and made her way to the bus stop. Just, whatever you do, don’t look up.
The flock of girls loitering by the school gate hadn’t spotted her yet. But she’d have to pass them, in order to get out. She held her breath. One. Two. Three. Go.
Just, whatever you do, don’t look up.
‘Turn on the news’, said Mrs Woolf, arriving home to find her husband still, diligently, at work. ‘Our daughter’s going to be on it.’
Mrs Woolf dropped her shopping bags upon the kitchen table, and headed off to the living room. It was December and, despite it being early, the sun had already set, engulfing the world in darkness.
The Five O’clock News was about to start.
Mr Woolf had, for his part, only just started work, after wasting the morning procrastinating and the afternoon on a late-request re-write. Still, their little girl was going to be on the TV, so, wilfully forgetting about his deadline, he got up.
‘Does anyone want popcorn?’ he asked. It seemed the right kind of thing to ask. No answer came, as Mrs Woolf was off in the living room setting up the TV, and little Maxie Woolf was upstairs putting on his pyjamas, yet Mr Woolf sauntered into the kitchen anyway, took a packet of popcorn out of the cupboard, put it in the microwave, and set the timer to three minutes. The hum of the microwave soothed his unease; told him that everything was, at the end of it all, going to be al-
Pop. Pop. Pop.
-right. Yes. Everything was going to be alright.
The popcorn finished cooking just as, from across the hall, Mrs Woolf called:
‘Come! Come! It’s starting.’
And Mr Woolf emptied the much-enlarged packet into a family-sized bowl before making his way to the living-room, and sitting himself in between his youngest son, and his wife. On the TV, the newsreader was in the middle of reading out the headlines:
“…washed up on the embankment, the result of what is believed to have been a teenage prank gone wrong…”
‘Popcorn?’ asked Mr Woolf, holding out the bowl in front of his wife, as the newsreader moved on to a ten-second synopsis of the day’s football.
Mrs Woolf took a handful of popcorn, and Mr Woolf passed the bowl over little Maxie Woolf, who took a scoop, just as the front door opened. Mike Woolf entered the living-room, plumping himself in the deep armchair and, without asking, reaching out, and grabbing the whole bowlful of popcorn.
‘Tough day?’ asked Mr Woolf as, on the TV, the newsreader read out story about a bank robbery they all knew had never happened.
‘The worst’, said Mike, before looking up at the TV and asking, ‘is that Emily?’
“…and now to a story closer to home. The body of a young woman, believed to be the daughter of eminent journalist Maxwell Woolf, has been found, washed up, upon the embankment by the estuary…”
‘Doesn’t she look beautiful?’ asked Mrs Woolf.
‘That she does’, said Mr Woolf, unashamedly beaming from his recent name drop:
Eminent journalist Maxwell Woolf.
“…two teenage girls, who cannot be named for legal reasons, have since been arrested, and are believed to have been involved in the crime…”
‘I wonder where she’s at’, said Mike Woolf, lazily stretching his legs, ‘I would’ve thought she’d want to see this with us.’
But the rest of his family were too engrossed in the news to offer up a comment. After the report was over, it was little Maxie Woolf who broke the silence.
‘It’s not real, is it?’ he asked, genuine concern in his voice, ‘I mean, it couldn’t be real, could it?’
Mr Woolf looked down at his son, allowing himself a self-satisfied smirk.
‘Of course it isn’t, dear’, he said, and his wife added:
‘The news rarely is.’
Vashti Kashian-Smith is a Welsh-born, Spanish-raised private tutor currently living in England. She’ll be returning to the University of Cambridge to read English Literature later this year. When not teaching or studying, Vashti writes novelettes, short stories, plays and opinion pieces. She also paints portraits.
She has previously written for Every Day Fiction and the Guardian
If you enjoyed Crying Wolf, leave a comment and let Vashti Kashian-Smith know.
Read Vashti’s previously published short story ‘The Persian Queen‘ here…
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