One of my earliest memories is of him.
I must have been three or four years old at most. I've never been able to explain why I remember this, but I do. I'd fallen into the swimming pool during a slip of our mother's attention, and he dived in to save me. I just need to close my eyes and I can see him, hair billowing around his head, arms reaching out to scoop me up.
Of course I remember nothing after this, but it's enough.
I wish I could say that was the only time he's needed to save me, but I'd be lying. I've lost count of the number of times he's been there for me.
At least time it will just be my pride, not my life. This is what I think to myself, as I pick up the phone to call him.
David is only three years older than I am. Technically, three years and ten months, but when I was younger I always threw away those ten months and called it three years only. It made me feel closer to him, and it really amused Mum and Dad when I'd proclaim (each birthday) that now I was only two years younger than my big brother and they needed to start treating me like they treated him.
Thankfully, they didn't, because let's face it, I'm an accident waiting to happen. David, however, seems to traipse through life unaffected by the slings and barbs flung his way. It used to incense me how he could turn bad to good; until I realised that's just who he is - people love him. He's everybody's friend. And to be honest, I don't think he's ever had an unjustified unpleasant thought about anyone, ever.
More importantly, he's my rock, and he'd never say no to me. This is why he's the first number on my speed dial, and the first person I tell absolutely anything.
I dial, and listen to the ringing. He picks up, and I feel slightly guilty when I hear the sleep in his voice.
"Sister dear, it's one am. I hope this is important."
I laugh. "I love you too, big brother. And yes, it's important."
"Everything ok?" he asks. It's one of the reasons I love him so much; he's never too busy to have time to listen to me.
"Bit of a crisis brewing here," I answer. "It's a friend's wedding this coming weekend... and my date has ditched me in favour of a ski trip to Cortina."
"The cad. I shall challenge him to a gentlemanly bout of fisticuffs." he says.
I laugh again. David loves to ham it up for me.
"I was hoping my awesome big brother would be able to step in and rescue me from the walk of shame," I wheedle down the phone.
"But of course, Em," he responds. "I'd be a terrible brother if I wasn't prepared to jump on a grenade for your honour."
"It's hardly jumping on a grenade!" I protest. "It's a classy affair out in the countryside - apparently a proper manor house and everything, and we get to stay over because the bride didn't want anyone to have to drive home after the reception."
"It sounds like a pretty large event," he says. "Will anyone I know be there?"
"Am I not enough?" I tease.
"Well, if you sneak off with some young man I guess I'll just have to flirt with the bride's mother or something," he chuckles.
"As if," I return. "So you sure you're ok with this, David? I don't want to twist your arm if you're not keen."
"Em, I wouldn't say yes if I didn't want to, so shush. Send me the details and dress code. When is it?"
"Ceremony's at noon on Saturday, then it's bubbly and chit-chat till the reception starts in the early evening. Pretty much an all day event."
"Ok, I'll swing through to your place on Saturday morning first thing and we can get ready. I'll bring the Jag; we can make an entrance."
"Have I told you recently how much I love you?" I say, hoping that he can hear the smile in my voice.
"Not for at least a week," he returns, laughing. "Now if it's ok with you, Emily, I've got an early morning. I'll see you Saturday, ok?"
"Mwa, mwa" I kiss down the phone, then hang up. Buoyed up by his ready acceptance, I catch myself singing as I tromp around my flat. I feel a bit silly, but the prospect of attending this wedding with my former boyfriend had been worrying me and I'm secretly relieved that he's out of the picture and I will have David as my escort instead. Especially given that we're sleeping there; I hadn't had the energy to tell the bride about the issues between Jason and I.
I have the brief, enjoyable fantasy of Jason getting stuck in a snowdrift and being unable to ever get out again. Then I shake my head angrily, refusing to let him intrude on the good news I just got.
One day, when I was fourteen, I was walking home, when a group of boys from school ambushed me and dragged me into an alley. I got away lightly, they just stripped me and laughed at my small breasts and faded underwear, and kicked my books and clothes into the mud. It could have been much worse. It took me a while to calm down once they had left, and longer still to gather my things.
I tried to sneak into the house, but David heard me and, bit by bit, winkled the story out of me. He held me while I sobbed, cleaned me up, got my clothes into the washer, got me into bed, and ran interference for me with Mum and Dad, telling them I'd had a fight with a friend and was too wound up to come down to supper. I guess my explosive nature served as a good cover story, because Mum and Dad never pried further than that.
David did, however, and I heard rumours. One of my attackers was found, blindfolded, hanging by his pants from the fence behind the cricket change rooms. Another fell down some stairs. A third somehow managed to break both his arms during a rugby practice. To this day I don't know whether it was David, but I have my suspicions that he and his friends made sure the message got out - nobody touches Emily, nobody looks at Emily, and anyone who messes with Emily is in for a whole world of hurt.
I think that's where I first started to fall in love with him.
The week passes, in the same way it always does. I go to lectures, go to my evening dance classes, swim, read and do all the things I do to fill my life when I'm single, which to be fair is most of the time. I've never been able to settle down with any one man for any length of time; I always find myself comparing them to David. I was nineteen when I first realised this, and since then I've sort of made peace with the fact that David is the standard by which I measure other men.
And it's an exacting standard, to be fair. David is tall and slim, with curly brown hair and blue-grey eyes. He's quick to smile, incapable of ever being fully serious, and he teases me to distraction. He played rugby and hockey at school, and gyms and runs cross-country now that he's working. He has very little sense of style, but cleans up very nicely when I get to spend some time dressing him.
David is a sports physiotherapist by trade; a damn good one at that. His personality combined with his intellect and uncompromising belief in putting his patients first has made him popular with the local rugby clubs and the private practice that he set up a few years ago has started to really take off. He still makes time to see people who can't afford private rates, and I know that there are lots of people on his practice's books who pay what they can, when they can.
In contrast, I'm muddling my way through my fourth year at University, and I'll likely leave with a degree and no real idea of what I'll do next. I write a lot, and draw and paint a bit, and have been published once or twice, but I'm not sure whether I can make a career of any of my scribbling. I guess I'm ignoring the future and trying to enjoy the last bit of my childhood before I have to go out into the world.
And so, the prospect of going away with him pleases me in ways I can't even begin to describe.
I sit on my bed, and take a last look at the gown I plan to wear to the ceremony. It's been hanging in my cupboard ever since I encountered it in a vintage clothing shop on one of my rambling trips to Camden market. Midnight blue silk and lace, shot through with faint highlights of silver thread, it fits like a glove, and necessitates careful selection of underwear to prevent showing lines.
The reception itself is a formal event; the bride and groom love dressing up and so I imagine the entire weekend is going to be like something out of Downton Abbey. Not that I mind, it gives me the opportunity to indulge and pretend I'm Katherine Hepburn or someone. Certainly someone worthy of the racy slit that darts up to mid-thigh on the right hand side of the gown.
So I've picked out a feather headpiece and black lace cocktail jacket, and a set of long black evening gloves to accessorise. I may not be on the hunt, but I still love to be noticed.
My phone rings, and I scoop it up. I'm a little worried when I see it's David calling, so I answer quickly.
"Hi Davey, please tell me you're not cancelling on me."
"Hi Em. No, nothing of the sort. I've got everything arranged on this side, but I was just wondering whether I should come through now rather than chancing traffic in the morning."
"It's seventy miles, Davey. And it's ten at night. Are you sure you're not too tired?"
"Positive. It's been a long day but I'd rather get there this evening and have a decent sleep rather than stressing all night and having to drive before sun-up."
"Well, I'd be fibbing if I said I didn't want you to come through," I say. "Just please drive carefully and phone me when you reach us; I'll let you in."
"See you in a bit, Em."
"Love you!" I say, smiling. He hangs up, and I do a little dance. It's silly, but I always feel like a puppy when I know I'm about to see him.
I bustle around, making up a bed for him. Mum and Dad pay for my flat, so it's far nicer than I could afford if I had to work while studying. I asked Dad about this once, and he said that 'varsity was the last time I'd be able to truly be free, and he didn't want me to have to worry about making rent every month.
So I work shifts in the library and as a tutor to undergraduate students, and that more than pays for food and my social life. I know I'm lucky, and I do my best to let my parents know how much I appreciate them when I can.
The upshot of all this is, there's room for a spare bed for David whenever he comes to visit, which to be fair is as often as he can, but not as often as I'd like.
I was eighteen when I kissed him, if you can call it that. Davey was home for a weekend, and we were sitting in the lounge together, ostensibly watching a movie, though to be fair David was watching it and I was watching him. He looked tired, and wasn't his usual self. I thought I could make him feel better, so I curled up against him and leaned my head against his shoulder. After a while, he muted the TV.
"What's up, Em?" he asked, quietly.
"I'm worried about you. Why are you so sad?" I asked him.
He was quiet for a while, then he sighed. "You know me well, Em."
"I've watched you my entire life. You're transparent to me. What's going on?" I asked.
"A friend of mine died this week; he was in a car crash. I miss him."
"Oh god. I'm so sorry, Davey." I said, quietly.
He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. "Thanks, Em. It's just hard. He was so young, it was such a stupid thing to do."
I went cold. "Did he drive drunk?" I asked.
David sighed. "Yes. He did."
I looked at him. "Promise me." I said, angrily. "Promise me on your life you'll never do that, Davey."
He turned and looked down at me, surpised at the intensity in my voice. "I promise three times, Em."
Impulsively, I lunged forwards and kissed him on the mouth. He started back in surprise. "Em!" he said, shocked.
"Now you have to keep that promise," I said. "I'll kill you myself if you ever break it."
He leaned back and looked at me, then with a small smile he wrapped an arm around me and hugged me, till I squeaked.
He never has broken it either, to my knowledge, and we never mentioned it again.
My phone rings.
"I'm turning into your street."
"I'm delirious with anticipation," I return.
The gate intercom buzzes, and I press the button to open the boom, grinning as I see his old E-type Jaguar in the pixellated display of the camera. I stand there, jiggling from foot to foot impatiently while I wait for him to ring the bell at the complex's downstairs door. I let him in, then scamper over to the flat's front door, which I fling open as I hear his footsteps on the landing.
"Hug attack!" I yell, as I grab him, wrapping my arms around his neck and arresting his progress.
David laughs and leans back, pulling me up off the floor. He swings around, and my inner child lets out a shrill "Wheeeee!". He stops spinning, lets me down, and, still chuckling, follows me into the flat, where he deposits his overnight bag and a plastic packet containing a bottle of wine and some takeaway green curry.
"I come bearing gifts," he says.
"My hero." I flutter my eyelashes at him and blow him a kiss, and he laughs again.
I can never get enough of his laugh.
"Long day?" I ask him, as I break out two wine glasses and open the bottle.
"Every day is a long day," he says, as he sits down on one of the barstools by the kitchen counter.
"Don't knock it," I say. "No rest for the wicked."
"Nor for the pure of heart like moi", he returns, and I snort, but am forced to award him the point.
I hand him his glass. "Cheers, Davey. It's great to have you here."
"Cheers, Em. It's good to be here."
I sip, smiling over the top of my glass at him as he looks around. "Not much has changed," I say.
"Some new artwork", he notes.
"I doodled a bit", I say, happy that he noticed.
"It's good, Em. You should explore it more."
"I might have to," I sigh. "My life of idle luxury comes to an end soon and I'll need to join the working class. Alas."
He grins. "Well, Em, you know where to find a spare room should you need one."
"Really, Davey? You'd do that for me?"
He gives me an odd look. "Em, you're my sister. Of course I would."
I flush slightly. "You're always so good to me, David."
"No more than you deserve."
There's a bit of an awkward pause, and I break it by getting up and putting the food into the microwave.
"All hail the God of blue sparks," David intones.
"Mock not the God, but accept his offerings gladly," I return sternly, and he smirks.
"So why are you so busy?" I ask. "You look like you're not sleeping properly."
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." he replies. "It's the problem with having a successful practice, Em. I can't in good faith turn people away, so we're working long hours all the time."
"You need to take some time for yourself." I say. "When was the last time you just went out with friends?"
"Friends? Ah, yes, I have heard this word used before. I must investigate it." he deadpans, and I flail a spoon at him.
"You idiot. When?"
"Last month?" he says, slowly. "I'm pretty sure I went out last month."
I put my hands on my hips and glare at him. "David Anderson, this is unacceptable. A delightful man like you should be out more frequently than once a year. You'll grow moss."
He shrugs, grinning. "Work and gym, gym and work, Em. That's my life right now. I'm hoping to get a locum or two in this year to help out, and maybe a junior partner."
Ping, goes the microwave, and I dish up for us. David's obviously pretty hungry because he tucks right in, and I take the opportunity to look at him.
He's tired, I can see that. But there's something else, something he's hiding. And I mean to find out what it is.
On my twentieth birthday, I caught my boyfriend cheating on me. I had suspected nothing, had had a raucous day with friends, and was planning on seeing him in the evening. I was shopping for earrings, when I saw him walking hand in hand with another woman. I'd gone cold, had followed, had watched them kissing, I mean, really kissing, and had fled.
David had been in class but had ducked out to field my tear and rage-filled call, had listened, had known precisely what to say and precisely when to just let me rant. I'd deleted my ex's number after that call, and the dinner I'd planned for that evening with him had become an alcohol-fueled wake at David's flat, where he'd let me sulk, cry, rage and ultimately sleep in exhaustion with the same placid demeanour with which he'd always handled my outbursts.
In the morning, there'd been flowers on the pillow next to me, a simple card reading "Happy birthday, my darling Emily" in his neat cursive, and the smell of the pancakes he was cooking for my breakfast in bed filling the air.
How do I begin to explain my relationship with David? I need him like the air I breathe. I know him like the back of my own hand. Amongst everything in this sometimes marvellous, often horrid world, he is the fixed focus around which I orbit.
I top up his wine, then my own, and collect his leftovers, binning them and mine. Then I take his hand and lead him over to the couch, where I install him. I take up position alongside him, tucking my legs in under me in the pose he always calls "Girl contemplating."
I eye him.
"Ok, 'fess up." I say. "Something's bugging you, and I can smell it."
He gives me a startled look, then laughs. "Ok, I confess."
"Excellent," I purr. "Soon all your secrets shall be mine."
"You already know all my secrets, Em" he says. "Well, except for this one. Truth is, I'm glad you phoned me when you did."
"Oh?" I raise an eyebrow. "I'm guess I AM psychic, after all. Whodathunkit."
He shakes his head in amusement. "I met someone."
My smile freezes and I take a quick sip of my wine to hide my momentary dismay.
"I was supposed to be going away with her this weekend to the Lake District, but she cancelled on me."
"I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm really not," I say smugly.
"I somehow doubted you would be," he says. "Still... it would have been nice. It's been a long time since I was with anyone."
"What?" I exclaim. "David, seriously, do you live under a rock?"
"I struggle to meet people outside work these days, Em."
"That's because you're always working," I return. "If you took better care of yourself you'd get out more. Maybe I should come live with you and smack some sense into you."
"Maybe you should" he returns, deadpan. I'm a bit taken aback by his ready agreement and cast about for something to say. My usual repartee of sarcastic replies deserts me, and I'm left a little flustered.
"Have you picked out what you're going to wear?" he asks with curiosity, and I'm suddenly shy as well.
"Yes," I say, quietly.
"Well? Do I get to see it, or are you flying blind on this one?"
I've always dressed up for him - any time I was going out, he was my advisor. It's always amused me that he could be so good at helping me dress and yet so terrible at dressing himself.
But I've never felt self-conscious about it, until now. I slowly get up, and head for my room. "Make yourself comfortable," I call to him. "I can't rush this."
"Don't hurry on my behalf," he calls back, and I hear the TV being turned on.
I close my door most of the way, and dim the lights slightly. Then, feeling uncharacteristically uncertain of myself, I pick out the black strapless bra I was planning to wear under my gown. Quickly, I strip off my tee-shirt and sports-bra, and drop my tracksuit pants as well. I strap on the black bra, then carefully take the gown off its hanger and slowly slip it on.
I reach behind myself, thanking my flexibility as I do up the zip that runs from the small of my back up to the high neck. I run my hands down over the front of my body, smoothing the fabric out. I quickly let my hair down out of its ponytail, and comb through it with my fingers so that it falls down in golden waves over my shoulders and back.