A fictional take on the coloured faces of one of the decade's most iconic puzzles.
The Rubik's Cube was invented in 1974. It reached the UK in 1980, winning the UK Toy of the Year award in 1980 and 1981. One hundred million cubes were sold in three years.
Geeky children across the world — including me — found a new obsession. When I began to write about this 1980s phenomenon, memories of my Cube flooded back: the vivid colours; the distinctive click-creak sound; the sense of achievement when I finally solved it … and the massive disappointment when I couldn't repeat my triumph the next day. I write fiction so instead of an essay I've chosen to return to 1981, and solve the Cube, in a short story.
Eight-year-old Iona raced past the kitchen and into the lounge, where she'd left her favourite present: a Rubik's Cube. Iona's schoolmates had gone Rubik's crazy in November; she'd been left behind and was desperate to catch up.
The footsteps halted. Jean, spooning coffee granules into a mug, registered a drawn-out moment of silence where she'd expected the click-creak of rotating slices.
Jean sighed, made her coffee with nearly-boiled water, and ambled through. Iona was standing, legs akimbo, pointing at the Cube. She glared at Jean.
'It's not a real Rubik's Cube!'
Jean sighed again. Iona was right. Authentic Cubes hadn't been available for love nor money, and Jean had only limited supplies of money anyway. 'I couldn't get a real Cube, love. This one's just as good.'
'It's not. It's broken.' Jean turned the Cube over. The top face was orange, the other sides were jumbled, and there were no pieces missing.
'There's nothing wrong with it. It's the same as it was yesterday.'
'It shouldn't be.' Iona's top lip started to tremble. 'It's supposed to fix itself overnight.'
Jean frowned, confused.
Iona's eyes filled with tears. 'You wake up and the Cube's solved, so you can play again. That's how it works.'
Jean pulled Iona into a hug. 'Oh, sweetie. I don't think that can be right.'
'It is!' Iona stood rigid, refusing to be comforted. Her fists clenched. "Otherwise it's no fun.'
'Carlotta's coming to play. We'll ask her mum.'
'Aye, overnight,' Carlotta's mum said. 'It's as if someone takes it apart and puts it back together. Every. Single. Evening.'
'Magic,' Iona's mum said.
Carlotta gave Iona a waggling-eyebrows look, then crossed her eyes, meaning she knew something. They took their orange squash and hid in the secret den under the stairs.
'It's not magic. It's a psycho,' Carlotta said. 'I saw its shadow.'
Iona scoffed. 'Did not.'
'Did not.' Iona paused, looking down at her Cube. 'What's a sy-ko?'
'Like in the film,' Carlotta said, miming stabbing motions and screeching. 'The psycho kills this woman in the shower, right, with this humongous knife, and there's blood everywhere. Everywhere.'
When Carlotta's big brother babysat, he let Carlotta stay up late and watch all the things Iona could only dream about seeing.
Or, in this case, have nightmares about.
Iona hugged her Cube to her. 'There's a psycho in your house?'
Carlotta cackled. 'I'll get you my pretty.'
Iona knew this one. She held up her beaker and threatened to douse Carlotta in squash. Carlotta obligingly melted. Iona joined her and they lay on the floor, giggling together.
'It's a helpful psycho,' Carlotta said. 'I saw its shadow slice up my Cube,' she karate-chopped in demonstration, 'then put it back right.'
'What does it look like?'
'Carlotta turned sheepish. 'I didn't look. What if there was blood everywhere?'
Iona stared, mouth open. 'Cube blood?'
Iona laughed until her belly hurt.
Jean glugged Matey bubbles into the bath. Iona trudged upstairs, head hanging, as if to her own execution.
'Chop chop!' Jean said. 'I'll wash your hair and then you can play.'
She left Iona sailing her plastic paddleboat, retrieved the Cube from the lounge, and took it into the kitchen. Carlotta's mum had given her some tips on prising it apart. She turned its top slice through 45 degrees and surveyed her cutlery drawer, mentally discarding the steak knives and the bread knife.
The paring knife snicked neatly into the gap between two yellow pieces. Jean wiggled. Carlotta's mum had said the pieces would be stiff.
They weren't stiff. They wobbled alarmingly.
Jean froze. What if her knock-off Cube fell apart and never went back together? Iona would be heartbroken. Jean pulled out the knife and gingerly prodded the edge piece with her finger. Had it always moved that much?
Her courage failed her.
She squared off the Cube, tidied it away, and went up to jolly Iona into her Muppet Show pyjamas. Iona dragged things out, taking forever to clean her teeth then reading her storybook in slow motion.
'Lights out,' Jean said.
'No! Leave them on.'
Jean frowned. Iona had long outgrown a night-light.
'Would I be a cowardy cowardy custard if I didn't want the psycho to visit?' Iona's eyes were wide and scared, her face pale.
Jean sat on the bed. 'What's Carlotta been telling you?'
Iona ran to get the Cube. Her mum fetched a wee knife. They settled cross-legged on Iona's bed, Cube between them.
'It's really Carlotta's mum?' Iona said.
'Yes. She swears the Cube goes back together.'
They stared at the Cube.
'What if it doesn't?' Iona said.
Iona's mum sounded less confident than usual. She prised off an edge piece. Two corner pieces fell off. The rest came apart quickly: 20 cubes; one weird middley-bit.
'If only the middley-bit was a robot.' Iona prodded it. 'Then it could put itself right.'
Iona's mum laughed. 'Good idea. How else could it get fixed overnight?'
She slotted in a piece next to the green centre square.
'Little green men!' Iona said. 'They'd beam up the Cube, solve it with alien logic, and beam it back before morning.'
'That'd work. What else?'
'A pet monkey who'd been trained to solve it?'
'We are not getting a monkey.' Iona's mum held the red and white edge piece. 'Next idea?'
'He'd come down the chimney and magic everyone's Cube in one night.'
'Or Brownies, if we left milk out.'
'Cheaper than Santa's sherry.' Iona's mum clicked the final piece into place and tossed the Cube across. 'There, good as new.'
Iona made a turn, then reversed it. She wanted it perfect.
'Could we work out how to solve it ourselves?'
Iona's mum smiled, the proud-and-delighted smile which made Iona warm inside.
'Don't You Want Me' blared from the kitchen radio. Jean ate the last mince pie. Iona scowled at the Cube. They'd solved the white face, then got stuck.
'How many ways of getting it wrong?' Iona asked.
'It said in the newspaper,' Jean said. 'Look it up.'
She scrutinised the Cube while Iona dashed into the lounge.'Over 43 quintillion,' Iona shouted.
Iona walked through more sedately, rubbing her elbow. She grabbed the shopping-list notebook and turned to a blank page. 'We should write down which things don't work,' she said.
'All 43 quintillion?' 'It's less than that.' Iona nodded at the white side. 'We've already got some things right.'
Fewer than that, Jean thought, but didn't say. Iona had grasped probability; no need to correct her English.
'Anyways,' Iona said. 'We need to write down the moves we try, not how it looks.'
Jean pointed at an edge piece. 'I can get this one in the right place. Watch.'
Iona transcribed what Jean did, then took the Cube and tapped another edge piece. 'This one's in the same place, relatively.' She repeated Jean's moves, biting her lip in concentration. 'Ta-da!'
'Maybe we can forget the things that don't work?' Jean said. 'And focus on those that do.'
Iona taught Carlotta. They practised in the playground, showing off, developing a routine that was part juggling, part clapping game and part speed-cubing. Miss Connolly press-ganged them into the end-of-term talent show.
Iona's hands shook as she waited. Her stomach churned. The school hall was filled with children and their parents. It smelt of school dinners. Carlotta stood on the far side of the stage, biting her nails.
Miss Connolly called their names. They skipped onto the stage and met in the middle, both wearing blue corduroy flares and yellow jumpers, and both carrying a scrambled Cube. Their eyes met in shared panic.
Miss Connolly banged out a chord on the piano. Carlotta started singing, her voice wavering and off key. Iona joined in.
'A sailor went to sea, sea, sea.'
They flipped the Cubes between them, making a few rotations each time before swapping. Iona relaxed as she got into the rhythm. They got a round of applause when they held up solved Cubes at the end of the first verse. Carlotta beamed. They scrambled the cubes and started again, speeding up for the second verse, and again for the third.
The fourth verse was faster still. They swapped Cubes for the last time; prepared to twist the last twist.
'Was the bottom of the deep blue--'
Iona's Cube groaned.
The Cube expanded.
Iona clutched, frantic, trying to hold it together. Pieces exploded from her hands and rained across the stage, pitter-patter-ing down in a sudden silence as Miss Connolly stopped playing mid-phrase.
Iona froze, staring into the beam of the footlights. Her fingers curled around a cube of empty air. Her heart raced. Someone sniggered. Laughter spread across the hall. Iona felt sick. Her cheeks burned. She reached for Carlotta's hand and gripped. They sidled towards the wings.
Someone shouted Iona's name. She turned her head and saw a girl from the year above waving a Rubik's Cube. The girl threw it. It thudded onto the stage at Iona's feet. Another Cube followed, from a boy in the front row who sent it skittering across the boards. Another came, and another, and more, all scrambled and waiting to be solved. Iona swallowed. She wiped sweaty palms down her trousers and looked at Carlotta. Carlotta shrugged. They both knelt to pick up a Cube, waited a moment for Miss Connolly to start playing, and cubed as fast as they could. The audience clapped, stamped their feet, and cheered each completed Cube. They finished four verses and eight Cubes in a time Iona was certain must be a new personal best, the music's accelerating beat spurring them on.
They took their bows together, basking in the applause.
Iona gathered the pieces of her 21-part Cube as she left the stage. She didn't think of it as broken. She knew exactly how to put it back together.