Prologue from On the Edge of the Loch

A lifetime had died since Tony MacNeill took to the streets fists up. Even now, that feeling hadn’t changed. On Newark’s concrete turf he had found an arena to flaunt his Irish working-class toughness, his fast hands. What he gave away in size to his new-world peers he more than made up with guile and courage. From when he was fifteen until he was almost eighteen these had made him king, peerless among all who had challenged him unarmed. Though alienated and brazenly immigrant, his only hard-core loathing was for the sluggers whose courage came from blades and guns.

Now, at twenty-seven, after nine years in maximum-security prisons, he was free, confronting again the outside world, battling to disassemble, finally, his street brain. And believe he had choices. Nine years of blue-sky days had been taken from him, throughout which he had fought relentlessly to save his mind. But what was done was done, he accepted; building a new life would demand more.

When his compulsion to move ahead caused him to reflect, it was clear he had been drowning in one abyss after another. Ever since he descended into New Jersey: February 27th 1980, one day after his fourteenth birthday, the day his parents abandoned Ireland, as he saw it, for the American dream, and traded his green world for a grey maze that sent him to hell.

Despite all that had happened, though, and what he had been forced to become, he’d survived. So too had the memories of his childhood and who he once had been.

It wasn’t that he could escape what had happened, he knew too well, or recapture the youth Newark had stolen. Nor wash away the blood of Jesus Pomental, or close those dead sixteen-year-old Latino eyes.

No, there’d be no such escape. But he had in the years since then, in certain ways, re-sculpted his brain, grown up, grown wiser. What was left, he believed, was to blot out the stain of death, the stench and violation of prison cells, and defuse his sometimes still fiery mind. And one day, if he could, exit Jesus’ gaze.

Already, five months had passed since he stumbled out to face a new world. Now, washing cars in corporate parking lots and writing a weekly column on schools-soccer for the Arizona News Sentinel, Tony MacNeill allowed himself to believe he was forging a new sanity. Each morning he re-fired his determination and replayed the wisdom of prison psychologist Joel Vida. Neither the forces that had derailed him at fourteen, nor the survival code that had sustained him through incarceration, were any longer relevant.

Eva Kohler had helped, initially on his release by renting him a room in her boarding house. And then her influence within her pool of intimates had landed him a half-dozen minimum-wage jobs, all brief stepping stones. From the beginning, tuning out her flaunting of her on-going affairs had caused him only slight discomfort. Of late though, that had changed. Now it was the things she said, how she looked at him, how she touched and brushed too close, that increased his isolation. Yet, as his confidence built he was biding his time, stashing away fives and tens for the day when he’d high-wire away. For he accepted now that he had paid in full for his sins, those for which he could atone. It was time to stop paying. No ghosts, no guilt, he swore, and no parole terms, would keep him imprisoned. Or keep the prison in him.

Each passing day, in his solitudes, his mind abandoned the Arizona desert for something he’d once had, a boyhood, with badges to prove it: playground woods and endless fields, the rhapsody of rivers and streams, the tiny home where he was always safe and its scorching turf fires. A time when he belonged. When he wished for no more than to live in each breath. When he knew who he was. When who he was was never a question. When days were escapades and sleep simply interludes.

Could he regain such peace, he needed to know, belong again to something, to someone? His vow was solemn, to find out if his soul might still be alive in Ireland, place of his only remembered comfort. Anthony Xavier MacNeill, the self he was meant to be, was anything left of it? Had the boy survived exile? All that had happened on the unforgiving streets? And what of the cost of nine years penal servitude and everything it entailed? Could he, this still obsessive ex-convict he had somehow become, resurrect the spirit that had once been his?

Soon he’d find out. Thirteen years after watching its green pastures fade into mist he’d go back for the first time, a short visit made possible by just two people still with faith in him.

He could ask nothing of the world, he accepted that, only of himself. If the gods were against him still, what then? He wouldn’t let himself imagine such a fate, not with a past so dark, or a mind now so fired.

He’d never be more ready, whatever lay ahead . . .

Joseph Éamon Cummins, an award-winning writer, taught creative writing and psychology for ten years. His new novel On the Edge of the Loch: A Psychological Novel set in Ireland is available on Amazon in print or ebook –

To read ‘If You Were a Crow or Crocodile or Gorilla . . . ‘ one of my recent articles on finding inspiration and imagination see

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