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Authors: Joanne Phillips

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Can't Live Without

BOOK: Can't Live Without
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30





Can’t Live Without




Praise for
Can’t Live Without


“If you’re looking for something with more substance than chick lit, something thoughtful, funny and very well written, try CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.”
Linda Gillard, author of House of Silence.

“I love that Phillips creates in Stella, a character in her late 30s with many flaws, but ultimately the heart of an angel, someone all readers will rally around ... CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT is all about finding out what really matters in life.”
Cindy Roesel, Chick Lit Central

“Joanne Phillips has an incredibly wonderful easy to read writing style. I absolutely did not want the book to end. I’m sure that Joanne Phillips will be giving some of the big names in the chick lit world a run for their money.”
Kim the Bookworm



This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events or localities is entirely coincidental.


Mirrorball Books

An imprint of Bostock Publishing

Bostock Hall, Whixall, Shropshire SY13 2RN


Kindle Edition 2012

Copyright © Joanne Phillips 2012

Joanne Phillips asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work


All rights reserved in all media. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author and/or publisher.


Cover design by Blondesign



For Jez

Chapter 1

Ever heard the saying, ‘If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen’? What would you do if this wasn’t just a philosophical suggestion but a blazing fact staring you in the face one morning as you wander downstairs to make yourself a cup of tea?

Shall I tell you how I react when I nudge open my kitchen door and see yellow flames climbing up my kitchen units? I’m a thirty-seven-year-old single mother, responsible and capable and – I thought until now – calm in the face of most crises. So I stand in the open doorway, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed, for a second or two, allowing the heat to sear my shocked retinas. I drop last night’s half-empty coffee cup from my slack hand and watch it shatter on the slate floor. Then, without a single coherent thought, I race back through the house, out of the front door and into the street, screaming like a schoolgirl.

I immediately forget everything I’ve ever learned about fire safety.

There is, I’m pretty sure, a small and shiny red extinguisher languishing under the sink somewhere. There are procedures for this sort of thing: wet blankets to be thrown, doors to be closed, valuables to be lifted and removed (although even if I’d had the presence of mind it would probably have been a struggle to get my American double-door ice-maker fridge-freezer out in time).

Never mind that I’m not even dressed, or that the nightshirt I’m wearing isn’t my own but my sixteen-year-old daughter’s and therefore about three sizes too small. Never mind that I haven’t yet brushed my hair or cleaned my teeth. You don’t worry about these things when your house is on fire.

I run directly into the arms of my neighbour, the ridiculously handsome but slightly obsessive man from Number Four. Gasping and reaching back to point over my shoulder I manage the words, ‘Fire!’ and ‘Help!’

He looks beyond me to see smoke streaming out of my kitchen window and then drops me like a hot brick and runs back into his own house, hopefully to call the fire brigade.

More people dribble out to see what’s going on. The handsome neighbour joins us again, a mobile phone pressed to his ear, giving my address in a clear, calm voice I find deeply impressive.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he says to me. Like someone’s died.

I don’t know his name, only that he’s lived next door to me in Chaplin Grove for six months and that he cleans his car (sporty, red, expensive) at least twice a week and shops only at Waitrose. We stand side by side and watch the smoke billow out of my front door, thickening to a grey-white fog.

‘Your daughter…’ He is still staring at my house.

‘She’s away,’ I answer shakily. Did the man think I’d be standing here relatively calmly while my daughter burnt to death inside? ‘She’s at her father’s,’ I explain unnecessarily.

The sight of actual flames creeping around the side wall finally spurs me into action. The sense of unreality slips away as I realise what the bloody hell is happening. My house is being destroyed.

‘Shit!’ I cry. ‘Shit. Shit. Shit.’ And I race back towards the open doorway.

I don’t know what, precisely, I aim to achieve by this but I suddenly know I must get back inside the house and salvage… something. This is more than just a minor incident, a little blip that can be sorted out with a good clean and a lick of paint. All my worldly possessions are inside those four brick walls, not to mention all Lipsy’s worldly possessions: her Playstation, her DVD player, her iPod, her computer ...

My daughter is going to kill me.

Mr Waitrose catches up and pulls me back before I reach the door. The flames have got there first anyway. An orange haze glimmers in the hall, coming off the walls like phosphorous. In a completely deranged way it’s actually quite beautiful.

I hear sirens in the distance and my heart lifts just a little. Maybe the damage won’t be too bad after all. Maybe they’ll catch it in the nick of time. I look around at my neighbours for reassurance, my face a hopeful question mark. They each wear an identical expression of horror and, like the psychic I’m most definitely not, I can read their one single thought: Thank God it isn’t my house.

I move my eyes from my neighbours’ stunned faces, back to rest on my burning home. My single thought: I wish to God it was somebody else’s house.




When fire engines start to pile up, I am ushered across the road by a lady with white lacquered hair. She installs me on her sofa, sits next to me and strokes my hand, making noises I think are supposed to calm me down. ‘There, there, dear,’ she says every few seconds. Sitting stiffly upright I stare straight ahead, eyes unfocused, ears ringing with the sound of sirens. Her voice is far away. She doesn’t manage to calm me down.

We’re in her house, the grand one on the corner. I’ve seen her taking her miniature poodle out for walks. They look similar, in the way dogs and their owners sometimes do. A small group of self-appointed protectors, of whom Mr Waitrose seems to be the leader, has followed us here. We all smell of smoke, like the aftermath of burnt toast and a greasy roast dinner. Only worse.

Much, much worse.

I rub my stinging eyes with tight fists and look around the room. The four other residents of Chaplin Grove are here: newly married couple Pete and Louise, their faces pinched and drawn; a middle-aged woman who has lived at Number One for only a month; and Mr Waitrose of course. I’m Stella Hill and I live at Number Three. The house with three enormous water hoses currently aimed at its roof.

Poodle Lady seems quite animated, making the most of her role as unofficial trauma counsellor by going over who’d seen what and when. She says, ‘I was putting out the washing when I said to Bill, “I can smell smoke”, and he said to me, “You’re imagining it, woman, your sense of smell is as bad as that bloody dog’s.” Well, you can imagine how he feels now. If he’d listened to me ...’

I watch her as if from a long way away.

I’ve noticed this kind of excitement before in people involved on the periphery of something awful, around it but not in it. It isn’t necessarily that we don’t like bad things to happen – we just don’t want them happening to us.

I begin to feel edgy, trapped. I want to go back to my house, watch over it, survey the damage for myself. I want to see if anything can be salvaged. Thoughts of all that we might have lost are crowding my mind now and making it difficult to think clearly. I feel I’m going to collapse under the weight of it all.

I try to get up but Mr Waitrose won’t let me. He tells me to stay where I am and the others agree with him. Their words fly around me like panicky birds as they exchange wild ideas about how the fire might have started. Have they forgotten I’m even here? They’ll probably still be talking about it weeks from now, an exciting morning, a break from the old routine. Of course they are glad it didn’t happen to them, but do they have to be so

Resentment stirs ugly inside me. Maybe they sense it; the atmosphere changes slightly and they shift their collective attention back to me.

‘At least you’re OK, though. You weren’t hurt.’ This comes from the anonymous lady, our newest resident. She has kind eyes and wears long, hippy-style skirts. True enough, I think, although I’ll reserve judgement on the psychological damage.

‘Thank goodness it didn’t happen in the middle of the night while you were asleep!’ says Louise in her mouse-like voice, clutching her husband’s hand so tightly she looks likely to break it off.

I nod to show her I agree that, yes, not being burned to death in your sleep is indeed a good thing.

‘Oh well, it could have been worse,’ says Poodle Lady. She says it kindly, absently, but something about the way it just slips off her tongue enrages me and I suddenly find my voice.

‘You think?’ I snap, twisting round violently to stare at her. ‘It could have been better, though. For me, at least. For example, it could have been
house instead.’

Unforgivable, I know.

My outburst is met with a stunned silence, but in a perverse way I am glad to have shut them all up. I’m feeling the first pinpricks of anger – irrational, but completely normal I’ve been told since – and I almost enjoy lashing out. It releases some of the tension. Not much, but now I feel slightly less trapped. And my resolve is returning.

It’s short-lived.

Something else I’ve observed before is how resilient people can be when they feel sorry for you. My rescuers rally with cries of how I have every right to be upset, and I should let it all out, that’s OK. I give up and slump back into the over-stuffed sofa. Their words wash over me and fade away. I feel weightless, unreal. Maybe this is all a dream. Maybe I’ll wake up in a minute in my own bed, my super-soft duvet wrapped around me like a cloud, fuzzy and contented, the whole weekend stretching out ahead of me ...

I notice a Swiss-style cuckoo clock on the wall above the Poodle Lady’s TV. It has tiny, intricately carved wooden doors painted green, and red decoupage flowers on the roof. It is hideous. I imagine the little wooden bird popping out on the hour and crying, ‘Help me, help me!’ instead of cuckoo. It’s 9.55 am.

I sit up, determination making my movements careful and deliberate. This is not a dream – and I am not going to be cuckooed at while my house burns to the ground. I’m ready to face the music, and more than ready to fend off any further objections. I perch myself on the edge of the sofa and grip the cushion edges with shaky hands.

‘Right,’ I say. And then, more loudly, ‘OK. Excuse me?’ But then I glance down and remember that I’m still wearing Lipsy’s nightshirt – the pink one with “I Am A Sex Goddess” emblazoned across the front in gold lettering – and I see that I have brown stains across my lap from the chocolate I had indulged in the night before, making the most of a rare moment of peace and quiet. On my feet are my favourite, almost threadbare, pink fluffy slippers, a Christmas present from years back when my daughter still believed in giving

Looking up I find Mr Waitrose’s eyes also trained on the slippers, an amused smile hovering around his clearly defined mouth.

Just perfect.

There may have been times when I’ve felt lower than I do right now but I can’t remember when. With everything I own gone up in smoke – my dignity along with it – I have descended to a whole new level of having a crap life. But the great thing about reaching the bottom is: there’s only one way to go.

BOOK: Can't Live Without
3.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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