From his place on the shelf, the knight was looking down into the child's huge brown eyes. You want us, he tried to say. You want both of us. See how shiny my armour is! See how long her dark hair is!
'Look! Can I have this one? Or this one? Can I have them both? Please?'
'You can have the knight, or you can have the lady,' the parent said. 'Not both.'
The child's lower lip wobbled. Had the knight had breath to hold, he would have been holding it. Perhaps, he thought, there would be a tantrum. Perhaps the parent would give in and buy them both. Or perhaps – even better – the child would be dragged out of the shop without the parent having bought either of them.
'Well? What's it to be?'
'The lady,' the child said sulkily.
No! the knight cried out.
Next to him on the shelf, the lady was singing with excitement. You knew this was bound to happen sooner or later, she told him gaily. Don't worry about me! I want to go out and see the world!
But we belong together! he protested.
Just because we came out of the same factory... He couldn't hear the rest of what she was telling him, because the parent had reached out and picked her up.
My lady! he cried. My lady!
But it was useless. She was being carried to the till, she was being put in a bag, she was being paid for, and she was being handed to the child.
Take care of her, he called after them, though he knew they couldn't hear him.
The door of the shop closed, and they were gone.
Don't be sad, someone was saying. Cautiously, the knight looked around, then upwards.
The robot on the shelf above him seemed to have fallen over. His inane cheerful face was peering over the edge and staring straight down at the knight.
It's what we all hope for, the robot said. We all want someone to choose us and buy us and take us home.
Do you think I don't know that, churl? the knight retorted. But we are of no common stamp, she and I! We've always been together. We came off the conveyor belt on the same day. We were packed in the same box, sent to the same shop, displayed on the same shelf. I always thought we'd be bought by the same person. I don't know how to go on without her!
The robot protested, I only...
Speak no more to me! Leave me to my grief! He stood, as he always stood, bolt upright, gazing straight ahead.
The robot didn't say anything else, but he lay there on his front until an assistant came past and saw him, tut-tutted, and put him back on his feet. All through the afternoon the knight stayed at his post, locked in his own misery.
At last, night fell, and the toys were left to their own devices. The plush dogs in the window bounded around as if they didn't have a care in the world. The ballerina danced in the music box under the watchful eye of the superhero. The toys on the shelves around the knight gathered to discuss the day's events.
How can I live without her? the knight asked.
Get over it, said the king. Nobody cares.
I owe you no allegiance, the knight told him. You're not even a real king. You're tie-in merchandise for some vulgar minstrels.
Everyone's tie-in merchandise these days, the king said. But be like that.
It could happen to any of us, the robot said.
I know, the knight told him. Imagine if it happens to the soldiers. What if the pink soldier gets bought and the blue one gets left behind?
He'd be even worse than you, the robot said. Personally I'm very glad you haven't been bought yet. I like you.
He thought – he hoped – that they'd come back for him, that the child would wear down its parents and demand that he be bought to complete the set. But the days went past, and the king was bought, and the Spanish dancer was bought, and nobody came for the knight.
I understand, the robot said. I miss her, too.
The knight glared up in his general direction. You! Man of tin, you dare to look upon her face!
The robot edged closer to the edge, tripped, and ended up on his face again. I would, if she was still here. She was fun.
You mock me! He would have gone on, but the shop assistant was approaching.
'That robot. It's fallen down again.'
The manager made an irritated sound. 'It must be faulty. I should send it back to the supplier. Hanson's, was it?'
'I'll look it up,' the assistant said to the manager's retreating back, and made as if to carry him off.
No! the knight screamed. No! Don't take him!
'Excuse me?' a customer called, and the assistant straightened out the robot's legs, and put him back on the shelf above the knight.
That was close, the robot laughed.
It's no matter for jesting, the knight told him. Didn't you hear? They're going to send you back to the factory. You should have a care.
What's it to you? the robot asked.
The knight didn't answer.
And then one day she came back, clutched in the hand of the child who had chosen her – had chosen her, but not him.
Sir Knight! the lady called. How goes the fray?
My lady! How do you fare?
Excellent well, I thank you.
She had lost her cloak, and instead was wearing around her shoulders a cloth that said SINGH OPTICIANS 01293 175129, its two ends joined with a clumsy wire fastening. Her hair was dishevelled and had a strange white and yellow flower caught in it. The knight peered at it. So dull, so shrivelled! He had never seen anything like it.
What's that in your hair? he asked.
It's a daisy. It's real – imagine that! O, you must go outside! There's sunshine, grass, gravel. It's wonderful!
You're happy, then, my lady?
Perhaps – but no, the parent was saying, 'No, we're only buying a present for your new baby cousin. What do you think we should get?'
You're sad, my friend, the robot said when they had gone.
The knight did not trouble to deny it. I thought that perhaps they had come back for me.
Poor knight! I wish I could... wait a moment... He moved right to the edge of the shelf and started rocking backwards and forwards.
What are you doing? the knight demanded.
The robot didn't answer. He had finally worked up enough momentum to send himself flying over the edge, describing a wide arc through the air. But he couldn't have judged it quite right. He was going to miss the knight's shelf. The knight put an arm out to check his fall, but he couldn't; they were both falling, tumbling head over heels, and bouncing off the edges of the shelves as they went. They hit the ground hard, and the knight's shield flew off his arm and skittered away under the shelving unit.
The floor seemed very wide and very shiny now they were down there.
Now you've done it, the knight said. What will become of us?
I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring us both down. I wanted to comfort you.
The knight peered up the shelves, the sheer face of the shiny cardboard boxes on the lowest level, the willow display of construction toys that surely wouldn't bear their weight, the yawning gap where the model railway track hadn't been restocked.
Do you think we can get up there? the robot asked, doubtfully.
The knight didn't think they could, but they didn't have many options. Help me up to the first shelf, and I'll see if I can push that box over, he said. We might be able to get up there and hide until nightfall.
What if they see us?
Nobody's looking. And they can't help but see us if we're on the floor all day. He scrambled up onto the robot's shoulders, and then onto the edge of the shelf.
He pushed at the box, but there were others behind it, and the weight was too much for him to shift. Frustrated, he pushed harder. The side of the box bent in, a very little, and sprang back. It was enough to tip the whole thing over. There was an almighty crash, and he was falling, bouncing, skidding across the floor, the box on top of him. He felt something gouge his face.
He just had time to say, I'm sorry, to the robot before the humans came. The manager and the assistant. This was it. The robot would be sent back to Hanson's, and he himself would surely go straight in the bin as damaged goods.
But someone else was coming. A child. Moving faster than any of the adults, intrigued by the noise and the mess, it snatched them up, the robot in its right hand and the knight in its left, and presented them to its parent with a beaming smile. 'Look! They go together!'
'I'm not sure they do, darling. They look to me as if they come out of completely different sets.'
'No! They do! Look! They're both so shiny!'
The parent sighed. 'Oh, well, why not? Let me look at the prices.'
They found themselves passed from two tiny hands into one big one, brought up to a gigantic face, and examined through a huge glass pane.
'How much birthday money do you have left?' the parent asked.
'Eleven?' the child said hopefully.
'Seven, sweetheart. I'm afraid these are going to be too expensive. You'll need to choose one or the other.'
The manager coughed, and said, 'We could do a deal. I'm afraid the knight got damaged in the fall, and I was going to return the robot to the supplier, but if you wanted it...'
'Is it safe?' the parent asked anxiously.
'Perfectly; it just doesn't stand up very well.'
'Well, darling, what do you say? You can have them both, but it will take all your birthday money.'
The child pondered for an agonising ten seconds, and then said, 'I want them both.'
'Very well...' They were carried over to the till, paid for, and handed back to the child.
'No, darling, put them in the bag. You don't want to drop them and lose them on the way home, do you?'
'S'pose,' the child said.
They found themselves suspended in a deep well of rustling plastic. Light seeped in through the white walls, and the whole thing moved with a brisk bouncing motion. They were constantly bumped against each other, and after a little while the knight got his arm caught around the robot's. He clung on.
How are you? he asked.
All systems functioning, the robot said. You were brave.
We were fortunate.
I didn't want to go back to the factory, the robot admitted.
I didn't want you to, either. The knight was quiet for a moment. But if you had to, I wanted to go with you. I would have found a way.
This is going to be better, the robot said.