This story is a work of fiction. Or is it?
Like most children, Sam looks forward to the weekend. It’s not that he doesn’t like school; he does. But when Saturday rolls around, he generally gets to spend some time with his dad. They’ll walk the dog in the park, go fishing, maybe even go to the football. When they hold hands, Sam can feel the scars and the callouses on his dad’s enormous hands. To Sam, weekends are special. Very special indeed.
Sam is eight and he loves diggers. The walls of his bedroom are covered with posters of JCB and Caterpillar machines. He has a set of yellow pyjamas that are covered in tiny silhouettes of backhoe loaders, dozers and dumptrucks. Those silhouettes were once black but now they’re grey; faded by countless washes. The trousers are also a bit too short because he got them when he was six. But they’re his favourites and he refuses to part with them.
Sam’s fascination with diggers and demolition stems from his dad. His dad drives a digger for a living – A JCB 140X to be precise. Sam had to draw his dad for a school project once and, even though his dad has always left from work long before he was awake, Sam drew him in full PPE complete with hard hat and safety boots. He is just eight years old, but Sam already knows that he wants to drive a digger when he’s older, just like his dad.
It is a Monday morning. Sam’s mother calls him for breakfast, and there is the usual mad dash trying to locate school shoes, matching socks and the school books he abandoned on Friday evening. As they leave the house, Sam spots his dad’s car. “Is dad here?” he asks excitedly. His mother tells him that his dad is not at work today.
Sam can’t wait for the school day to be over. He almost drags his mother along the path as they return from school. His dad’s car is still there!
He finds his dad in the front room. The lights are off, the curtains are still closed and the TV is on but it is muted. There is a half-eaten sandwich on a plate balanced on the arm of his dad’s favourite chair. His dad is holding a full cup of tea that has gone cold.
“Dad,” Sam shouts and runs to his father. His dad sets down that undrunk cup of tea and hugs Sam tightly. “Hello mate,” his dad says (he never calls him Sam, only mate). “How was school?” Sam says it was alright and then asks his dad about work. “Why weren’t you at work today,” Sam asks. “There was no work today,” his dad replies. “Have you got any homework?” his father says, quickly changing the subject.
His dad’s car is there again on Tuesday morning. It’s there on Wednesday too. It is never there that often unless he is on holiday. This is a rare treat for Sam; like Christmas has come a few weeks early.
Sam is of an age when he has started to question the existence of Santa. However, back at the beginning of November when his dad suggested that he write to Santa, he did so without hesitation. You can’t be too careful with these things.
Top of Sam’s list is a PlayStation 5 together with a digger simulator game. So when Sam is coming down the stairs on Friday morning and hears his mum say the word “PlayStation” his ears prick up. He then hears his dad say something like “how am I going to tell him?”
His parents are doing a weird shout-whispering, like they’re angry but they don’t want anyone else to know.
“Morning mate,” his dad says as Sam bowls into the kitchen. It is school time and his dad is wearing a dressing gown. He has the beginnings of a beard too. When Sam says goodbye, his dad’s hug is a bit tighter than usual, and it lasts a bit longer.
Sam is on his way into class when Frankie walks up beside him. Frankie is not really a friend, but their fathers work at the same demolition company so they sometimes go to the football together. “Has your dad been laid off too?” Frankie asks. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I don’t know what that means.”
“It means he’s been kicked out of his job,” Frankie says. “My dad’s been laid off and he’s just sitting at home. He keeps on arguing with my mum.”
Maybe Sam’s dad has been “laid off”. Perhaps that’s why he’s not at work. And maybe that explains that weird shout-whispering his parents keep doing.
“What does laid off mean,” Sam says when he gets home to find his dad back on the sofa.
An expression comes over his dad’s face. It is an expression he has seen before but he can’t quite place when or why. But when his dad says “Come and sit down mate,” he knows exactly what is coming. That face and that instruction to sit down was precisely what happened before his dad told him that the family cat had been killed by a car. Something bad is about to happen. Sam can sense it. He hesitates. Maybe if he doesn’t sit down, maybe the bad news won’t get him. But his dad pats the sofa cushion and Sam has no option. He sits.
“Look mate,” his dad begins. “I have been laid off. That means that work doesn’t need me any more. I am looking for another job but there’s not much out there this time of year.”
Sam has never seen his dad cry. But there’s something vaguely ‘glassy’ about his eyes. His dad is not crying but it looks like he could at any moment.
“Mate I know how good you have been this year. Mum is always telling me how helpful you are and your grades at school are brilliant. But, the thing is, I can’t afford to get you that PlayStation right now.”
Sam frowns, confused. Afford? “But Santa,” he begins. And that’s when it happens. That glassy look in his dad’s eyes becomes actual tears. “Oh Sam,” he says. “I thought you knew.”
Sam’s mind is racing. Is my dad crying? Did my dad just confirm that Santa isn’t real? And then there was the weirdest thing of all. My dad just called me Sam. He NEVER calls me Sam. Hearing the name Sam come out of his dad’s mouth is like seeing someone that normally wears glasses without their spectacles: weird, not quite right, discomforting.
He doesn’t know it at the time, but this is a defining moment for Sam. This isn’t the day he becomes a man; that is still nearly nine years, two cans of cider and an older girl called Lucy in the future. But it is a turning point nonetheless.
A few weeks later, on Christmas morning, he tears open the gift wrapping to find a new set of pyjamas emblazoned with Spiderman, Captain America and – his favourite – Iron Man. There is no conscious decision. But his old digger pyjamas move further and further towards the back of the chest of drawers in his bedroom. When his mother finally throws them away, he doesn’t even notice.
As the years pass, the digger posters on his wall are slowly replaced, first by superheroes, and then by supermodels.
He is just a few weeks shy of his 15th birthday when his school hosts a careers evening. A number of companies have taken miniature exhibition stands in the hope of attracting an enthusiastic school leaver or two. There is an estate agency, an optician, the local newspaper, a cardboard factory and even the army has taken a stand. A plant hire and demolition company also has a booth that is covered with photos of backhoe loaders, dozers and dumptrucks, just like Sam’s old PJs.
The man on the booth sees Sam walking towards the booth and says: “What do you want to be when you leave school son? We always need smart lads like you in construction.”
“No thanks,” Sam says politely. “Demolition’s not for me.”