Oct 1, 2012

Earthfasts



I remember reading William Mayne’s Earthfasts (1966) on a summer day in the mid-1970s, sitting a lawnchair in the back yard, the air thick and heavy with the scent of lilacs from our backyard bush, while my brother kept rushing in and out and asking “is that all you’re going to do all summer?” But I couldn’t put the book down.


 

David (the blond) and Keith, two teenagers in the north of England, are investigating a tapping sound in an old tumulus, when suddenly a boy emerges, costumed as an 18th century redcoat, carrying a candle and a drum. He is Nellie Jack John, a drummer boy in King George’s army, and he entered the tumulus to look for buried treasure “an hour ago,” in 1742!  (Pictures are from the BBC miniseries, with Paul Nicholls as David and Chris Downs as Keith.)





Eventually the sad, confused Nellie Jack John realizes that he has become lost in time, but he reasons that the tumulus might send him home. David, however, is obsessed with keeping the boy in the twentieth century: he grabs him, tries to hug him, tries to talk him into staying. But Nellie Jack John shakes him off, rushes back to the tumulus, and vanishes.

David is disconsolate. He spends hours staring at the candle Nellie Jack John left behind (which burns but doesn’t go out), and says “It’s as if the world has vanished, not the boy. . .nothing in the world is quite touching me."  

Meanwhile, weird things are happening: the earthfasts (standing stones) move by themselves; giants roam the countryside; ghostly soldiers attack passersby. Keith and David theorize that instead of returning to his own time, Nellie Jack “jammed” the time flow so that the past is intermingling with the present. They return to the tumulus to effect a rescue, but this time David vanishes!








Later Keith finds a way to enter the tumulus, find his two friends, and rescue them both from the jammed time stream. Back in 20th century England, Nellie Jack John finally understands that he can never go home. He becomes hysterical with fear and loss and tries to run away several times, but each time David grabs him and holds him tightly like a lover. Eventually he calms down and allows himself to be held. His new situation can’t be helped, after all, and the future might be rather fun. He agrees to go home with David.

There's a remarkably intimate scene near the end of the book (not in the miniseries) where David puts the Nellie Jack John into a hot bath, admires his naked body, and begins scrubbing his back.



I was mesmerized by David’s passion for Nellie Jack John. It begins as suddenly and mysteriously as love at first sight, a passion too profound for words, and compels David to risk everything for a boy he only just met. Nellie Jack John at first wants nothing to do with David, for he represents the loss of his entire world; but finally he acquiesces, allowing himself to be touched, held, and loved.  It was a remarkable evocation of a gay romance.