In 1918, Michael McCready returned from the war with one goal: to lose himself in the pursuit of pleasure. Once a promising young medical student, Michael buried his dreams alongside the broken bodies of the men he could not save. After fleeing New York to preserve the one relationship he still values, he takes a position as a gardener on a country estate, but he soon discovers that the house hides secrets and sorrows of its own. While Michael nurses the estate’s neglected gardens, his reclusive employer dredges up reminders of the past Michael is desperate to forget.
John Seward’s body was broken by the war, along with his will to recover until a family crisis convinces him to pursue treatment. As John’s health and outlook improve under Michael’s care, animosity yields to understanding. He and John find their battle of wills turning into something stronger, but fear may keep them from finding hope and healing in each other.
I found both Michael and John to be what some might call damaged, I personally found them complex but not damaged. Having survived the Great War, had they not had issues I would have found the story lacking. This touches on what they saw and felt without being overrun with those horrors taking away from their story of surviving. I also found myself falling in love with the supporting cast, not an easy accomplishment in my opinion. Secondary characters are obviously important to the story but to make the reader fall for them and still keep them as secondary is not always met. I've been in a historical mood lately, especially concentrating on the Great War era, Bonds of Earth was an excellent addition to my library.
THE early spring evening still held a reminder of the winter’s chill, but as soon as Michael opened the door of the Saint Alexander’s Baths, it might as well have been high noon in the middle of summer. The sultry heat and humidity washed over him, drawing him inside and tugging him down the wide steps to the place that, for all its chipped paint and flickering Mazda lamps, had become his second home, his refuge.
By the time he reached Millie’s office, he had shed his jacket and collar and was working on the buttons of his vest. He was not looking forward to this conversation, but there was nothing else to be done. He had no choice.
“Darling! You’re early!” The sweet scent of Millie’s perfume momentarily drowned out the stronger odors of the bathhouse as she hugged him to her ample bosom. When she released him, she peered into his eyes, that sapphire-blue gaze seeing right through him, as it always had. “What’s the matter?”
Michael motioned her to her overstuffed chaise; she shot him another glance but did as he wished, and he sat in the chair opposite. “I wanted to let you know I have an interview tomorrow for a position. I’m probably going to get the job; my uncle’s all but fixed it.”
Millie pursed her rouged lips. “Refresh my memory, dear. You have so many relatives.”
“Padraig, my mother’s eldest brother. He’s a gardener—works for the City most of the time, though he also does some work for the types with mansions near the Park.”
“You’re going to work as… a gardener?” Millie’s sour expression made it clear what she thought of that idea. Reaching out, she gripped Michael’s broad hands in her finer ones. “Your poor, talented hands—you’ll ruin them!” she exclaimed in horror.
Michael squeezed her fingers before drawing away. “I’ll be fine. As Uncle Paddy says, it’s a good opportunity for a working man.” He forced a twisted smile that wasn’t intended to convince her of the statement.
Millie made a derisive noise. “Yes, well, you know what I think of that.” She sighed. “I suppose it’s not the end of the world. At least you should still have a bit of time to work here, especially in the winter.”
Michael shook his head, the rage he’d been feeling since hearing from his meddling bastard of an uncle threatening to stop his throat. “If this comes through, I’ll be leaving New York. One of the old blueblood biddies needs someone to tend her Hudson River estate. If I’m lucky, I’ll manage to visit Manhattan once a month, if that.”
Millie stared at him, her carefully plucked eyebrows climbing. “But why? Why leave the city? Everything is here.”
For a moment, Michael considered telling her. For all her flash, she was a kind-hearted soul, and she’d been a good friend to him over the years. All the more reason, though, not to burden her with his troubles. He knew full well she’d survived more than he ever had, and while she would be outraged on his behalf, it would do neither of them any good. Instead, he shrugged and murmured, “Time for a change, that’s all.”
Millie shook her head, then leaned forward slightly. “Have you given any more thought to what we talked about last week?”
Michael settled further into the chair. “You know I haven’t.”
Millie scowled, the deep lines revealing her age in a way that Michael was sure would horrify her. “If you’d just stop being such a—” she began hotly.
Cutting her off with a sharp gesture of his hand, he said, “I’m not going to take your money, Millie. I already owe you too much. And even if I could, I don’t want the things you think I want. That discussion is finished.”
“Consider it a loan,” she persisted. “You can pay me interest if it offends your virtue. And you owe me nothing. You’ve long since paid me back for everything I put toward your education. You know that.”
Michael stood, suddenly eager for the conversation to be over. “I’m sorry. And please don’t think I’m not grateful you gave me my old job after I came back from the war. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and you made it possible for me to—”
Millie waved away his words, and he smiled in spite of his mood. “Well, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. I was a rough, ungrateful Mick ruffian before you taught me manners.”
Rising to her feet, Millie took his face gently between her palms. “You were never a ruffian, my darling,” she said softly. “And I wish you’d think about what I’m offering you. When you left six years ago, you had such dreams.”
Christ, Millie, he wanted to say, you have no idea. For you, it’s been a few short years. For me, it feels like a fucking century. And every time I dream now, it’s a nightmare.
“This is a good position,” he said, parroting his uncle’s speech. “A good opportunity.”
“Well,” Millie said, releasing him with a final pat, “perhaps the country air will clear your head.”
Michael leaned down and brushed his lips against hers softly. “From your mouth to God’s ear.” Too bad the old bastard is deaf, he added silently.
Sighing, Millie hooked an arm around his neck and pressed into his embrace for a moment before releasing him. He tried not to notice that her eyes were bright when she pulled away. “Get to work, you loafer,” she whispered. “Your customers are waiting.”
Michael touched her cheek with his fingertips, the faintest hint of beard greeting them even through the heavy layer of paint. At least you still have your disguise, Henry m’dear, he thought, allowing himself a moment of fierce sentimentality. “Mustn’t disappoint the customers,” he murmured, planting one final kiss on her forehead before plunging back into the tropical atmosphere of the bath, filled with the seductive scents of sweat and lust.
Michael was almost disappointed when his shift progressed much the same way it always had: the same customers, the same faces, nothing out of the ordinary. The pressure from the bulls had let off in the last month, so there wasn’t even the excitement of a possible raid to break the monotony. The Greenwich Village baths like Millie’s attracted a mixed crowd, bohemians and fairies and rough Ninth Ward Italian boys who weren’t allowed to touch the nice girls their mothers wanted them to marry. They all liked Michael because he’d forgotten more about massage than most of the city’s rubbers knew, and because he had long since trained his voice to be nearly as soothing as his hands. It didn’t hurt that he was over six feet besides, with a longshoreman’s build, hair the color of a raven’s wing, and blue-gray eyes that more than one customer had called “hypnotic.” Michael didn’t give a tinker’s damn what they called his eyes or any other part of him; a hollow shell would serve them as easily as he did, and they’d still come away satisfied. Most nights, a hollow shell was all they got.
Geoffrey, one of his regulars, arrived not long before closing. He was a middle-aged fellow, soft hands and a soft manner, the sort you usually saw at the Everard rather than up in the Village baths. A businessman, Michael guessed, or perhaps a lawyer, someone inclined to seek out a bathhouse where he would not be recognized. His face wasn’t remarkable, but his eyes were dark, almost black, like a Gypsy’s. He was always polite. Michael liked the way he said his name, though he liked the way he tipped even better. The skin of Geoffrey’s shoulders was pale as milk, and his arms and chest were slim but not without muscle. He preferred for Michael to start with his neck and work his way down his front first, starting with effleurage and graduating to frictions and petrissage of his arms. His father had suffered from debilitating arthritis, he told Michael, and he was terrified that the same would happen to him.
“I have to believe that your treatments will be a help to me,” Geoffrey would say, as Michael gently stroked his fingers.
“Can’t hurt,” Michael would reply.
After that, Michael would move on to his lower extremities, kneading from the feet to the calves to the thighs, hands moving constantly, checking for signs of weakness or fibrosis automatically, although after four months he knew Geoffrey’s body almost as well as his own, was familiar with the span and stretch of every muscle and tendon. By the time he reached the hips, Geoffrey was usually restless and showing the first signs of arousal. He was an odd one; most men who came to the Saint Alex were hard the minute they walked in the door. But then most of the clientele of the Saint Alex kept the animal inside them close to the surface, while men like Geoffrey spent their whole lives hiding theirs from the light of day. Regardless of where each of them spent their days, darkness was the safest place for desires whose indulgence could bring arrest and imprisonment.
This was usually the time when Michael asked him to turn over, but tonight he felt a strange need, a desire to make a connection, and so he said, “You probably won’t see me next week.”
Geoffrey’s eyes opened, dark gaze startled and confused. “I’ll be leaving the city soon,” Michael explained. “I don’t imagine I’ll be back here.”
“Oh,” Geoffrey said softly. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“You’re just worried about your arthritis,” Michael remonstrated.
“No!” Geoffrey exclaimed, pushing himself up off the table, his expression earnest. “I don’t—I haven’t only been coming here for that.”
Michael looked pointedly down at the towel that was barely covering Geoffrey’s groin. Geoffrey’s face flushed. “Not only for that, either. I—”
“What’s your real name?” Michael demanded, suddenly in earnest for no reason he could explain, to himself or anyone. “I know damned well it’s not Geoffrey.” The other man’s face grew fearful. Michael cursed himself silently but pressed on nevertheless. “You can tell me. I’ll share it with no one.”
Geoffrey shut his eyes and took several deep breaths, as one preparing for a dive into freezing water. Finally, he whispered, “Joseph. It’s Joseph.”
“Well, Joseph,” Michael said, leaning forward and bestowing a gentle kiss on his brow, “how’s about you turn over for us now, hm?”
Joseph nodded and sank back onto the table as though the admission had exhausted him, robbed the resistance from his bones. He lay limp and unresponsive at first, but Michael had the sweetest hands of any rubber in the baths, and within minutes Joseph was trembling and moaning and grinding his hips into the table. His pleasure sounds drew a crowd, and by the time Michael began to press inside him there were a dozen hands on Joseph’s pale back, striping it with every shade of olive and tan and brown.
Joseph gave him five dollars before he left, and Michael kissed him for it, lingering in the soft, pliant depths of Joseph’s mouth as though they were lovers loath to part from one another. When Joseph drew back, he searched Michael’s face for a moment before turning and walking away, soon disappearing in the fog that surrounded them all.
MARGARET looked up from the money Michael had pressed into her hand, her face revealing her confusion and hurt. “You’ve only just come back, and now you’re going away again?”
Michael stroked Donald’s cheek where the baby lay warm and cozy in his bassinette, a sturdy drawer pulled from the dresser. His nephew looked exactly like Margaret had at that age: both strong and fragile, a contradiction that lived inside her still. He reluctantly lifted his head to meet her gaze. The fragility was harder to find now, but she was no less dear to him for that.
“It’s a good opportunity,” he repeated, hoping that the speech he’d used on Millie would work on her as well. He didn’t have the patience to come up with new arguments, particularly when the reason for his exile was staring him in the face.
No, he thought sharply, it’s not her fault. It’s Paddy’s. Don’t forget that.
Reaching out, he took her hands in his. “You know I’ve been at loose ends since coming home,” he said, trying a smile he knew didn’t reach his eyes. “God knows you’ve probably grown sick of my black moods.” She opened her mouth to speak, but he shook his head to forestall her. “Perhaps this will give me a chance to break out of my rut.”
She looked up at him sadly, squeezing his hands as she spoke. “I wish you could tell me what happened over there,” she murmured.
“No, you don’t,” he replied gently. “If you had seen a tenth of what I’ve seen, m’darling, you’d pray every night to have God take the memory of it from you.”
Margaret’s face crumpled as she took his face in her hands. “If telling me about it would help you, I’d gladly bear it, Michael. I’d—”
Gut knotting, Michael hugged her to him tightly so that he wouldn’t have to see her face. “Don’t cry. I’m not worth crying over.”
“You’re worth more than all the gold in the world,” Margaret murmured against his shoulder, repeating words he’d said to her since the day she was born. “We never used to keep secrets from one another. You used to tell me everything.”
“Not everything,” Michael said, trying to keep his voice light and failing miserably. “I want you to love me, don’t I?”
Margaret tipped her head back and stared at him. He filled the silence before she could ask the question, because in his agitated state, he might finally tell her the truth, Paddy and the police and God be damned. But he also knew that if he spoke now, he would lose the last thing that still mattered to him, and so he only smiled and said, “Cheer up, now. I’m only going up the Hudson, not across the Atlantic. I’ll be back to visit before you know it.”
Margaret lived only a block from the place in which she’d been born, in a tenement less ramshackle than most thanks to Michael’s weekly supplements. When they were children, Michael would sneak her out on summer Sunday mornings before his aunt woke them for Mass and spirit her off to Central Park. They’d spend the day lost among the tall trees far from the beaten paths, imagining themselves intrepid explorers in uncharted territory, and return sunburnt and tired and exhilarated. Paddy would cane Michael for it, but he’d never lay a hand on Margaret, perhaps because he knew Michael would kill him in his sleep if he ever touched her. Someday, he would tell her, someday we’ll be gone from this place.
But in the end, she had never escaped this handful of overcrowded streets of filth and feuding humanity, and even though she was barely twenty-one, he doubted she ever would. And Michael had fled across an ocean only to learn that the world was steeped in such filth as made the Bowery seem the most pristine wilderness imaginable.
“Uncle Michael!” Michael turned to see Edith, her short sturdy legs stumbling as she raced to reach him. Striding toward her, he caught her just before she would have fallen and swung her up into his arms.
He tickled her, and she giggled happily. “Anna took me to the park!” she exclaimed, flinging an arm out to indicate the skinny olive-skinned girl standing in the doorway. She nodded to him, then began talking quietly with Margaret.
“Well, that was very kind of Anna,” Michael said softly, “but we must keep our voices down. Your brother’s sleeping.”
A tiny line appeared between her brows. “I don’t like him,” she confessed in a whisper. “When he came, Papa went away.”
Michael squeezed the child a little tighter. Paul, Margaret’s husband, had left three months ago for Philadelphia, claiming to be following a lead on a steelmaking job. Margaret hadn’t heard from him since. “Your Papa has left to find work,” he said, as soothingly as he could. “He’ll send for you before you know it.”
Edith’s frown didn’t abate, as though she could tell he didn’t believe a word he was telling her. “You mustn’t blame your brother,” Michael added. “He needs you to love him and take care of him.”
“The way you took care of Mommy?” the child asked.
Michael stroked the fine blonde hair back from her forehead. “Oh, I know you can do better, m’dearie,” he murmured. “Much, much better.”
“REMEMBER your promise,” Paddy warned as he stopped the truck in front of the tall wrought-iron gates.
“I don’t need to be bloody reminded,” Michael spat back. “You’ve made it damned clear what my choices are.”
“Watch your language,” hissed Paddy, peering nervously out the windows of the truck. “I hope you don’t talk like that in there.”
Michael sighed, suddenly wanting it all to be over with. “I’ll get the job, Uncle.”
“See that you do,” Paddy sniffed. “When I think about your poor mother looking down on you from above, knowing what you’ve done—”
“She sees you, don’t think she doesn’t—”
Michael reached for the door handle. “I suspect heaven’s not that much different from this world as they’d like us to believe. Ma’s likely too busy washing rich men’s socks to be looking down and watching me fuck—”
The word was barely out of his mouth when his uncle clapped him soundly across the face with his open hand. Michael wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of flinching, even though it hurt like the devil. After all, he was used to it by now.
“Shift yourself,” Paddy said lowly. “Or I’ll call for a constable. And then I’ll tell Margaret just what kind of a pervert you are.”
Without another word, Michael reached for the door handle and let himself out of the cab. The street was busy but not clogged; in this part of the city, the sidewalks were wide, and there was fresh macadam on the roads. There were well-dressed clerks hurrying to and fro, and the occasional young woman wearing a shirtwaist and heavy skirts. Many women had given up—or been forced to give up—their office positions as soon as the war ended. He knew Annie Sewell from the floor above him had had to go back to her first job working in the kitchen of one of these fine houses. A year ago she’d been eagerly talking about her new “career” as a clerk and how her boss didn’t try to take liberties with her the way the old master had.
He gave his name to the stiff who answered the door and waited in the library for the lady of the house to appear. He’d kill for a cheroot right now, but he’d sworn off the things because he didn’t want all the teeth to rot out of his head by the time he turned thirty. With what this position was likely to pay, it wasn’t a sound idea for him to take up the habit again. The fewer vices he indulged, the more of his wages he’d be able to save, even after sending Margaret whatever he could.
What he was saving them for, well, that he couldn’t say exactly. That would require planning, and Michael had worked hard to avoid making plans for some time now.
Michael turned to face the well-dressed woman with silver-blonde hair who had spoken to him. “McCready, mum. Michael McCready.”
“Yes,” she said, looking him up and down with a delicately wrinkled nose. He didn’t offer his hand, merely bowed slightly at the waist and nodded. She hesitated for a moment, perhaps trying to decide which of her chairs she’d risk sullying. Finally she picked one and waved him to it.
“Your uncle does you a great service. He says you are an excellent gardener—surely a great credit from such a fine one as Mr. Sullivan.”
Michael smiled. She couldn’t know how funny he found that statement and would just take it as pleasure at the compliment. “Yes, mum. He’s taught me all I know.”
“I understand you worked with him before you went overseas?”
“Yes, mum.” That much was at least partly true. He’d sweated for Paddy since he’d gone to live with him at the age of twelve, because if he hadn’t pulled his weight, Paddy wouldn’t have fed him. As it was, there’d been more than a few nights when Paddy had drunk so much of his paycheck that there wasn’t enough food for Michael, Margaret, and Paddy’s six children besides. When the settlement house do-gooders had quit dragging him back three years later, he’d escaped to work for himself.
She asked him more questions, and he answered them easily, embellishing in places and omitting in others, telling her the things she would want to hear. While she droned on about the requirements of the position, he let his mind return to his last job interview, nearly two years ago now.
Doctor Randolph Parrish of the American Convalescent Hospital in Somerset sits behind his huge oaken desk, one finger tapping the side of his nose as he studies the report. Short and rotund, he has the appearance and mannerisms of a jocular Christmas elf and the steel-gray gaze of a Viking warrior. Michael finds himself drawn to the contradiction.
“You want to join my staff, then, do you?” Parrish says, raising his eyes to contemplate Michael.
“Yes, sir.” Michael does not say that he has requested this transfer because he’s only a few short steps from madness. Parrish deals with shell-shock victims every day; he can recognize the signs of a man who is heartily sick of the trenches.
“Your record as an ambulance driver is commendable,” Parrish says, “and you have completed a year of medical school?”
“Yes, sir. In Dublin, before the war.”
“Where did you study massage?”
Michael launches into the carefully prepared speech. “I’m mostly self-taught, sir, though I did study the Ling methods, as well as some of the more modern techniques.”
“Hm.” Parrish nods thoughtfully. “Do you have any experience with electromechanotherapy?”
“No, but I did use hydropathy in my work. I’ve read Doctor Baruch’s writings and attended one of his lectures at Columbia.” Michael doesn’t add that he’d snuck into the medical building and stood at the back of the hall while the real students looked askance at him and his threadbare suit.
Parrish flips through the papers in his hands. “I don’t recall seeing references from your massage work.”
“I spent over three years working at one of the finer men’s clubs in Manhattan,” Michael replies smoothly. “Unfortunately, the letter of reference my employer sent never reached me overseas.” A brief flash of anger accompanies this statement, but he tamps it down swiftly. The truth is that the word of the man who transformed Michael from ignorant tough to idealistic young medical student would be worthless to a man like Parrish. It is equally true that no amount of anger will change this fact. Worse, his physical therapy experience is all in the baths, and although he spent long nights applying the techniques he learned in long days of self-study, he knows that the merest whisper of his years at the Saint Alex will lose him more than this position. A self-confessed invert is doomed to prison at best and a mental institution at worst, where the alienist’s latest “cure” will be only too joyfully inflicted upon him.
“Will you be going back to medical school afterward?”
The question takes Michael by surprise, and suddenly he is trapped by that sharp gray gaze. It seems as though Parrish can read every one of his secrets as easily as the headlines of the morning’s Times. “I don’t know,” he says, surprising himself with an uncharacteristic display of honesty.
Parrish leans back in his chair, folding his hands over his ample belly. “The men on this ward have need of an experienced masseur. More than that, however, they have need of a man who is committed to their recovery, more so in most cases than they are. You must be prepared to never let them see your disgust, your fear, your despair, and I guarantee you, you will feel those things every day. Privately, you may be as uncertain as you wish, but you must never show them a moment’s hesitation. Do you understand?”
Michael wants to tell him no, wants to walk out of the room right now and resign from the Red Cross—he’s a civilian, there is no force holding him here—but this is his last chance. He can see the hundreds, thousands of dead rise up before him, and he wants so desperately to help something to live, wants to make one last attempt to revive the dream he can barely remember before it leaves him forever.
“Yes,” he says. “Yes, I understand, sir.”
“Well, then, God help you,” Parrish says wearily, rising to his feet and offering Michael his pudgy hand, “the position is yours.”
“The position pays well—thirty dollars a week,” Mrs. Anderson said, the mention of money bringing Michael back to the present. He nodded at the woman politely. Millie paid him forty, and he often made that much again in tips. But at least here he’d have no expenses for food and lodging.
“That’s very generous, mum.” It was, truthfully, more than he’d been expecting; the bluebloods loved their charities, but they were notorious for paying their help next to nothing.
“Well,” she said with some asperity, rising to her feet, “you look like you’ve a good strong back, and you have a pleasant manner. With Mr. Sullivan vouching for you, I’m willing to offer you the position. I’m off to Philadelphia at the end of the week, and I can’t be bothered with interviewing twenty men who are probably equipped with few qualifications and even fewer references.”
“I’m honored to accept, mum. When shall I start?”
“As soon as possible. Can you be ready to leave Thursday?”
Two days. “I believe so. Yes, mum.”
“Good. I’ll have a ticket waiting for you at the station for the five o’clock train. Thomas will meet you in Stuyvesant.” She waved a hand at Michael’s unspoken question. “Thomas Abbott. He and his wife are the caretakers, but he’s advancing in years and isn’t able to tend the garden any longer.”
“Are they the only residents, mum?” Many of the estates on the Hudson were little more than summer homes or places to deposit the maiden great-aunt or the mad relative. He wasn’t looking forward to sharing a house with the family embarrassment.
“No. My nephew—my brother’s only son—has been living there for several months now.” She made another sour face. “He’s recently returned from the war as well.”
Michael nodded. No doubt he’d served his country as an ass-licking aide-de-camp or rear-echelon paper-chaser. “And I suppose I will be reporting to him?”
“You will be reporting to Thomas,” the woman informed him, ice in her words, “and Thomas will report to me. You will have no need to bother my nephew.”
“Yes, mum,” Michael said woodenly. Wonderful. The man was either mentally incompetent, a drunkard, or a completely useless bastard—or perhaps all three. Well, Michael had certainly put up with worse.
“If you have no more questions, I believe our business is concluded most happily for both of us. Thank you for your time, Mister McCreeley.”
Michael did not even consider correcting her again. “Thank you, mum. I will do everything in my power to give you satisfaction.”
“I’m sure you will,” she said distantly, already having dismissed him in her mind.
Taking his cue, Michael bowed slightly and let himself out. Once back on the street, he took a deep breath of the Manhattan spring air, which even in this fine neighborhood had the slight tang of the city’s ever-present layer of filth in it.
“I’ll miss you, you ugly old bitch,” Michael murmured, startling a young woman bustling past him on the sidewalk. Nodding at her, he tipped his hat and headed off in the opposite direction, toward the streetcar.
G N Chevalier has lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Québec City, and Montréal, but currently resides in Nova Scotia with her partner of many years. A long-time student of history, she is particularly interested in helping to tell the hidden stories that are only now being rediscovered. Some of her hobbies include playing music, video remixing, and photography.