Edge of Eternity

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[1961] George had read short reports of the violence in the next day’s papers, but he was disappointed to see the story overshadowed by the rocket flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Who cares? George thought sourly. The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been the first man in space, less than a month ago. The Russians beat us to it. A white American can orbit the earth, but a black American can’t enter a restroom.

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Was this how the segregationists would win? George had wondered. By avoiding confrontation then carrying on as usual? It was not. Peace had lasted just four days. On the fifth day of the Ride one of their number had been jailed for insisting on his right to a shoeshine. Violence had broken out on the sixth.

The victim had been John Lewis, the theology student. He had been attacked by thugs in a white restroom in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Lewis had allowed himself to be punched and kicked without retaliation. George had not seen the incident, which was probably a good thing, for he was not sure he could have matched Lewis’s Gandhian self-restraint.

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She spoke to a man next to her. ‘Is it everywhere?’ she said. ‘This fence?’

‘Everywhere,’ he said. ‘The bastards.’

The East German regime had done what everyone said could not be done: they had built a wall across the middle of Berlin.

And Rebecca was on the wrong side.

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‘But here’s last night’s big revelation.’ Claud pointed to an object with fins in one of the photos. ‘My boss will be briefing the President about this within the hour. It’s thirty-five feet long. We call it a Frog, for Free Rocket Over Ground. It’s a short-range missile, intended for battlefield situations.’

‘So this will be used against American troops if we invade Cuba.’

‘Yes. And it’s designed to carry a nuclear warhead.’

‘Oh, shit,’ said George.

‘That’s probably what President Kennedy is going to say,’ said Claud.

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The June sun shone down on the President’s head. ‘All free men, wherever they live, are citizens of Berlin,’ he said. ‘And therefore, as a freeman, I take pride in the words: Ich bin ein Berliner!’

The crowd went wild. Kennedy stepped back from the microphone and slid his notes into his jacket pocket. Bernd was smiling broadly. ‘I think the Soviets will get that message,’ he said.

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Jasper sensed that King had thrown away his prepared speech, for he was no longer manipulating his audience emotionally. Instead, he seemed to be drawing his words from a deep, cold well of suffering and pain, a well created by centuries of cruelty.

Jasper realized that Negroes described their suffering in the words of the Old Testament prophets, and bore their pain with the consolation of Jesus’ gospel of hope.

King’s voice shook with emotion as he said: ‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

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George’s thoughts moved with underwater slowness. Jack. That means the President. He’s been shot. Shot in Dallas, it must be. It might be fatal. He might be dead. The President might be dead.

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The group was improving, however. When Dave sang in harmony with Lenny they sounded modern, more like the Beatles. And Dave had persuaded Lenny to try some different material, authentic Chicago blues and danceable Detroit soul, the kind of thing the younger groups were playing. As a result they were getting more dates. Instead of once a fortnight, they were now booked every Friday and Saturday night.

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Khrushchev sat thoughtfully for a long time. He did not dismiss Dimka. Eventually, he said: ‘They haven’t got any urgent agricultural problems. This is what you warned me of six months ago, on my birthday. They’re going to throw me out.’

Dimka was shocked. So Natalya had been right.

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Ethel had transformed her country as well as herself. She had fought and won political battles – for votes for women, for welfare, for free health care, for girls’ education, and now freedom for the persecuted minority of homosexual men. Dave had written songs that were loved around the world, but that seemed nothing by comparison with what his grandmother had achieved.

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As soon as she reached the main street she knew what had happened. The noise was caused by tanks. They were rolling along the street, slowly but unstoppably, their caterpillar tracks making a hideous din. Riding on the tanks were soldiers in Soviet uniforms, most young, just boys.

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A young woman from the music company that distributed Nellie Records came into his dressing room to ask if there was anything he needed. She wore loon pants and a crop top, showing off a perfect figure.

‘No, thanks, darling,’ he said. All the dressing rooms had a small bar with beer and liquor, soft drinks and ice, and a carton of cigarettes.

‘If you want a little something to relax you, I have supplies,’ she said.

He shook his head. He did not want drugs right now. He might smoke a joint afterwards.

She persisted. ‘Or if I can, you know, do anything . . .’

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Cam sat down again. This was a catastrophe. Nixon had secretly recorded everything that went on in the Oval Office. He had talked about burglaries and bribes and blackmail, all the time knowing that his incriminating words were being taped.

‘Stupid, stupid, stupid!’ Cam said out loud.

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However, it was election year, and Cam hoped Ronald Reagan would get in. Reagan was aggressive on foreign policy, and promised to liberate intelligence agencies from Carter’s milk-and-water ethical constraints. He would be more like Nixon, Cam hoped.

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Driving from the Capitol homeward to Prince George’s County, George brooded on hostages. This year in Lebanon, four Americans and a Frenchman had been kidnapped. One of the Americans had been released, but the rest were languishing in some prison, unless they were already dead.

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‘This is dynamite,’ Jasper said when George had told him the whole story. ‘Are you sure of your source?’

‘It’s the same as my source for the other stories I’ve given you. Completely trustworthy.’

‘This makes President Reagan a mass murderer.’

‘Yes,’ said George. ‘I know.’

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An hour later the most powerful men in the Soviet Union were gathering in the Presidium Room. Dimka was still worrying. Gorbachev’s group needed a master stroke that would make Gorbachev the leader irrevocably.

Just before the meeting, Gorbachev pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

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Alice was bright-eyed with hope. ‘But this means Helmut and I can leave!’ she said. She and her fiancé were desperate to get out of East Germany. ‘We can just drive to Hungary, as if we’re going on holiday, then walk across the border!’

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Running, stumbling, shouting and screaming for joy, they passed through the compound. The gates on the far side were also open. They surged through, and East met West.

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Obama said: ‘It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals, or a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.’

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