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The Legacy of Mr. Jarvis (Women's Fiction, Book Award 2023)
Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
Biddable Lily Page has spent 50 years living a life defined by others. But when her father dies and she chances to meet two strangers, change seems inevitable. And not just for Lily. It is 1983, social and political turmoil are rife, the era in flux, as Lily attempts to embrace an autonomous future.
First 10 Pages



The first time she saw Stella Fox seemed insignificant.
The last was an incident hitched to memory.
But the first.
Clerkenwell Road on a Wednesday afternoon early in the New Year of 1983, the light beginning to fade after a day of cold brittle sun. She was leaning languidly against the bus stop as if appropriating it to serve only her needs, assuming the object for her purpose.
Lily Page should have known then.
Later, she was to remember the servility of that bus stop. And the knives of ice in the cruel January air that threatened snow.
But at the time she saw only the girl. The young woman clad defiantly in an enormous amount of fur - sable or perhaps squirrel – staring indifferently down the road, detached, remote. Lily envied her. Admired her air of self-possession, noted the perfection of her pale, flawless face. And was reminded of her late mother’s fur coat, the smell of cedar and dust and stale perfume when she opened the door of that large wardrobe on the top landing of the house.
And then the bus arrived.
And Lily, who usually walked, got on alone somewhat guiltily, found an empty seat, swiftly shifting her mind away from the girl, the young woman, onto the prospect of her evening. A fire lit in the upstairs living room to offset the chill of the day. Some supper, that soup left over from Sunday lunch with her Aunt Dorothy. The bit of Stilton still lurking from Christmas. And a glass of wine, perhaps two, considering the ordeal of the day. She would leave her father’s papers for one night. Disregard the need to sift through more of his books, the endless, stacked shelves occupying floors as well as walls. Ignore the letters of condolence requiring acknowledgement which persisted in arriving months after his death. After all, the day had already seen her spend several uncomfortable hours devoted to his memory. That awkward, strained lunch she should have resisted. The subsequent Service of Thanksgiving attended by too few to merit the event at all. Her fingers were numb inside her gloves, her thin-soled shoes chosen for the formality of the occasion inadequate to the task of warming frozen toes. Perhaps there would be snow by morning, a light frosting on the roofs of houses, sufficient coating on the roads to deaden traffic noise for an hour or so, the city’s plane trees dense with the stuff like winter blossom. Lily liked snow. She admired its way of disrupting routine and entrenched habit with a simple natural offering. At least in London. She assumed the countryside was a different matter. Concerted efforts with snow ploughs opposing the stuff, an urgency to get milk through to its destination. Chains on car tyres. She preferred the city’s haphazard, helpless response.
The bus shifted itself wearily up Roseberry Avenue, sat in clogged traffic then at red lights so that she began to regret the impulse to catch it. Even in such shoes she could have been close to home by now. Or at least in Upper Street and within comfortable reach of it. She had been stubborn, refusing a lift from that man who had read one of the lessons, badly, hesitantly, as if sceptical of the sentiments. She had forgotten his name, but had noted that he had not even bothered to hide his boredom, his sense of exasperation over the whole affair. Privately, she had sympathised, but could not bring herself to accept his offer, still compelled by her late father’s expectations. Consequently, she had lied, told him she was meeting a friend and that yes, of course she would check for any first editions among her father’s books, inform the university of any such discovery before despatching most to the second-hand shop in Highbury.
No doubt they all thought of her as ill-informed about such matters.
Now that her father was gone, they probably pitied her, saw her as sadly solitary and out of her depth. And if she was honest, she knew she gave them little reason to think otherwise.
After all, Lily Page knew how ordinary she was.
A woman who reaches middle age with little to show for her five decades beyond compliance and respectability is marginal, a side note at best. And thus, they would view her, those remote acquaintances of her father who had obliged with their appearance at the service. And they would be right on the whole. About Lily Page. A woman of routine, she conformed to a prescribed, contained life, the only one, after all, she had ever known. And one adapts, one accepts. And anyway, it was not as if an alternative had presented itself.
For the most part, at least.
At the Angel, she got off the bus, walked rapidly the short distance to Alfred Street, up the few steps to her front door, slipping out of her court shoes as she fumbled keys, gloves. A hole had appeared in her stockinged left foot, two toes coldly protruding. They required cutting, she noted, her toe nails. And the toe joint was threatening a bunion.
Only when she was inside the house, welcomed back by the familiar smells and warmth of the place, the cat, Hector, demanding food, affection, did she think briefly again of the girl at the bus stop.
The young woman.
Of her certain air of contrariness and the wisdom of that defiant fur coat.
Of the contempt, she would no doubt have, for people like Lily Page.


Toby Jenner had been absent.
He had written, excusing himself from the well-merited university memorial service for your father, the requisite condolences noting Professor Walter Page’s long and admirable life spent encouraging and supporting the academic careers of so many. Easy, glib sentences that gilded more than they revealed. But there was nothing inappropriate about that. What Lily had sought in his conventional letter was some semblance of connection, at least a familiarity in his tone. After all, what would have been the harm after so many years? Close on a quarter of a century now. Toby Jenner, however, had always been adept at reinvention, capable of excising past events as if they were mere figments of someone’s fevered imagination. A man skilful in shedding exoskeletons to allow him to move on, blithely untethered. And he had moved on, personally, professionally, not so much steadily climbing career ladders as discarding inconvenient steps along the way in cavalier style.
People like Toby Jenner did not hold onto sentimental, potent memories unless they were of use to him. And thus any intense if brief entanglement with Lily Page could swiftly be discarded to oblivion.
She rang Dorothy early on Thursday evening. Her father’s only surviving sibling, younger by six years, she had refused to make the journey from Harrow to Bloomsbury for the service and spent most of the phone call reiterating her reasons.
“So unnecessary, so morbid. My brother is gone. Dead. That ghastly crematorium business last August with that appalling vicar with the speech impediment was bad enough.”
“It wasn’t an impediment. He was from Sunderland, I believe.”
“Couldn’t understand a word he said, anyway. No-one knows how to project these days, that’s the trouble. But why go through the whole business again? Were there hymns?”
“Just two. And a lunch first for a selected few. You might have enjoyed the lunch.”
Lily had loathed it. A stilted affair with institutional food in a small room off a cavernous dining hall. It had been cold, the air frigid, and attempts at strained conversation with two current members of the department over tepid beef and flaccid sprouts had failed to warm the mood. Only one of her father’s former colleagues had been there, most already inconveniently dead, and he had at least provided mild relief with his accounts of similar services which seemed to be the mainstay of his diary. Walter Page’s memorial, he had declared expansively to Lily over his second helping of Eve’s Pudding and copious amounts of custard, was the first in what he expected to be a demanding year for him.
“And a lot of waffle, no doubt, trying to fill up the allocated hour or so. Speeches?” Dorothy went on.
“An address. By the current faculty head. He spoke well. If a little – ponderously, shall we say?”
“A bore in other words.”
“He was highly complementary. Referred to several of father’s important publications.”
“I should think so too,” Dorothy said. “Although as you know I could never quite grasp my brother’s obsession with the ancient world when there were so many more relevant matters he could have pursued.”
“He thought it was all relevant, remember. Understanding ancient civilisations was the key to grasping our own precarious handling of the 20th century.”
“Lily, there’s no need to remind me of one of Walter’s favourite obsessions. But just tell me, why?”
“Why ancient Greece?”
“No! Foolish girl, you’re being perverse.” Dorothy always spoke to her as if she was a wayward child instead of a placid woman of fifty. “Why have a memorial service at all? Your father retired close on fifteen years ago and even that was testing the patience of his department, I seem to remember, delaying departure until they nearly had to kick him out.”
“He wanted one. A service. You know that. He expected it and spent the last few months of his life talking about it in considerable detail. It seemed to give him a lot of pleasure. Rather like most people gain from planning a party when you think about it. And he left full instructions so it was easy for me simply to ensure they were carried out. In conjunction with the university, of course.”
It had, in fact, been far from simple. When Lily had eventually raised the matter with her father’s erstwhile department, she had been passed from one bewildered voice to another, clearly at a loss with how to handle her request. Walter Page had, it seemed, assumed rather than agreed such an arrangement. She had persisted. The classicists had eventually capitulated. The whole affair had been fraught with embarrassment.
Just like his ashes.
The one subject that her father had failed to instruct upon had been the location for the scattering of his ashes. Adamant about a desire for cremation, he had left Lily with the dilemma of what to do with the residue. Consequently, a large container still resided on a shelf in his study, the best place Lily could think of to avoid confronting the problem on a daily basis.
Dorothy had moved on.
“You can give me chapter and verse when we next meet, Lily. If you insist, that is. But your phone bill for the past six months is no doubt excessive. In ten days then? I will expect you at midday as usual. Or thereabouts. The North Circular on Sundays gets more exasperating every week.”
And she was gone before Lily had time to confirm their arrangement, back to her substantial second floor mansion flat, her dwindling circle of stalwart friends from civil service days, her prescribed habits. The Times’ crossword before breakfast, a sizeable Scotch on the stroke of six. A game of Bridge alternate Fridays. Whist once a month.
A defined life.
Like most of us lead, Lily thought, one way or the other. Anything less prescribed seemingly too precipitous to consider. Hector clawed at the carpet. She bent down, picked up the cat and carried him to the kitchen to assuage his demands.
For as long as she could remember, the three of them had met weekly for Sunday lunch in Alfred Street. Her father’s death in August had only modified the arrangement for Dorothy appeared to have decided that the loss of her brother clearly heralded her own decline. Thus she announced that she would no longer be using the metropolitan line to travel to Baker Street where Lily was in the habit of picking her up, but would require transporting by car for the entire journey. Her concession to these increased demands was to change their weekly meeting to a fortnightly arrangement. Her aunt always implied, with some justification, that her niece was permanently in debt to her for providing the maternal care that her birth mother had failed to supply. Since Helen Page had died from puerperal fever three days after giving birth to Lily, the fault could hardly be considered hers yet Dorothy spoke as if the gesture had been somewhat wilful and inconsiderate. Dorothy had occupied the role not with warmth, but with undeniable practical efficiency, treating the young child a little like an anomaly she might find in her department at the London City Council. In consequence, Lily had experienced rather a rushed, truncated childhood with the inference that it would really be better for all concerned if she simply skipped that passage and fast forwarded to the convenience of self-reliance. Her widowed father, bereft, helpless, bewildered by the abrupt turn in circumstances, had loved his only child inordinately, but had been relieved to follow his sister’s instructions to chivvy Lily through the tedium of her early years to occupy a more companionable, resourceful role at his side. Dorothy, who had always implied that her brother’s marriage to an attractive, vibrant woman fifteen years his junior had been somewhat imprudent, had viewed their venture of goading Lily to premature, responsible adulthood as an unqualified success. And remember, she would often add to anyone she could convince to listen, we had a war on. As if hostilities had been solely, spitefully declared to hamper their attempts to raise motherless Lily.
There had been no snow overnight and the next few days saw the temperature rise so that by the time Lily drove to the AGM of the play reading society the following week a stream of mild dank air had set in that seemed inappropriate for January. She was the first to arrive in the cavernous back room at the former Working Men’s College, a late Victorian building in a narrow street near King’s Cross where the society held its monthly meetings. She arranged chairs for what she expected to be a small attendance – after all, no members were likely to challenge current practise sufficiently to turn out for the dull, obligatory annual meeting on a winter’s night – set out agendas and had time to go down to the refectory in the basement which, in spite of efforts with rubber plants and framed posters of impressionist paintings, never quite lost shadows of the gymnasium that had once occupied the space. The coffee served, however, was surprisingly good and the place usually felt convivial. But this evening it was close to deserted with only a couple of solitary figures occupying a long trestle table, another hovering by the notice board, since most of the evening classes and clubs that occupied the college in term time had not yet resumed after the Christmas break. She was disappointed. Used to finding the atmosphere of the whole building positive, a shared common purpose of learning providing a hook between relative strangers, her attention was now drawn to the dispiriting cream and green painted walls, the stale smell of cigarettes from the smokers’ area of the room. Perhaps she had overestimated its charms.
But coffee.
Carrying a substantial cup over to a table in the corner she sat down and scanned through the brief agenda, pencilling in a couple of points she wanted to raise in Any Other Business.
“Excuse me, would you mind?” She looked up, startled. A man was at her side, taking the chair opposite before she had a chance to speak. “You see, I’m worried I’ve come to the wrong place entirely and you look like the sort of person who could put me right.” Lily said nothing. The remark seemed intrusive and without foundation. The man smiled, clearly unaware of any impropriety. “I was expecting to sign up to a class, you see, or whatever the process is to get the ball rolling for one of these courses. Sign my life away to a term of tuition on Tuesday nights. But I have obviously been ill-informed. The place is as near as empty. The woman on the phone was a little vague now I think about it. Would you be able to help, direct me to where I should be headed?”
“I think you’ve come on the wrong day. And no, unless you are planning on joining the play reading society, I’m afraid I’m of no use to you at all.”
She was indifferent to sounding rude. His manner was too direct and she wanted to stall conversation. She glanced at the clock and concentrated on drinking her coffee, waiting for him to apologise, move away. But he continued to sit as if unconvinced by her words.
“I was looking for Italian. Beginners’ class. I picked up something in the library about this place – the college – and thought, why not? Get the aging brain into gear before it’s too late!” He continued to smile, assuming engagement. Lily swallowed the remains of her cup too swiftly, burnt her tongue. She stood up. Gathered her coat, her bag.
“Strictly speaking,” she said, “the play reading society is not even part of the college. We simply rent the room so I have no idea about the formalities of enrolment. But I’m sure the languages department has its procedures and you would certainly need to pay the fee before your first class.” She started to walk towards the door dismissively, but he caught up with her.
“Well, that’s put me firmly in my place, then!” he said. “I knew you would be the person to ask, a fount of information.”
“Anyone would tell you the same,” she said, irritated by his persistence. “The adult education term starts next week, I believe. I’m merely here for a meeting.”
And swiftly she left the room and headed for the stairs.
As anticipated, there were only seven in attendance with only one non-committee member and matters were sorted within an hour, the agenda covered with little hesitation. No-one opposed the re-election of chairman or treasurer and Lily’s longstanding position as secretary was unsurprisingly confirmed. Most people belonged to the play reading society to do little more than that and had no wish to involve themselves in any administration. On the final Tuesday of each month, the society met to read whichever play had been chosen, taking roles allocated to them either out of choice or necessity. Lily’s role as secretary confirmed casting in sufficient time for some preparation. On the whole, the system worked well, with members sensitively aware of the extent of their talents and rarely was she required to negotiate conflicts. Tonight, no-one seemed to want to linger, deterred by the emptiness of the college, the sense of trespass in the quiet corridors. The chairman and treasurer were the first to go, the two men clearly despatching themselves to the local pub, a somewhat dubious place in the nether region of Kings Cross station. As usual, Lily offered a lift home to Agnes Wills, an elderly, faithful member of the society who rarely missed a meeting, but resisted always taking a vocal part. A retired hospital almoner, she lived alone and appeared to have little family. Whilst she always insisted on making her own way to the college, she was clearly gratified by the assumed arrangement of a lift back at the end of an evening.
“How have you been, Lily?” she said as they drove down Copenhagen Street towards Agnes’ flat on the edge of Barnsbury. “It must have been difficult, the first Christmas without your father. A lot of adjustment for you, I can imagine.”
“It was hard, of course, and not easy for my aunt either,” she said. “I know she misses him terribly although she would find it awkward to admit it. But my father was an old man, Agnes, and wouldn’t have wanted to linger once his health was so poor.”
“The intelligent ones never do,” Agnes said, “and of course your father was such an esteemed academic.”
“In his day.”
“That must be a comfort to you, knowing he lived such an admirable life. And you were always a part of it, of course. What with your skills and ability to support him in so many crucial ways.”
“My father never learnt to use a typewriter efficiently, that’s true,” Lily said, negotiating her way around a wavering cyclist with inadequate lights. “In fact, he was really very stubborn about the matter and insisted that writing by hand was his only way of doing things. And it worked out well for me, of course. Gave me a role. It was always the plan.”
“Secretarial training in preparation, I suppose?” Agnes asked somewhat bleakly.
“Yes. It was the obvious choice. And I always felt that I was lucky in having a watered-down further education without ever having a formal one. You can’t imagine how much I learnt about the classical world simply by being my father’s typist. Or at least about Athenian civilisation between the third and seventh centuries. That was his particular area of interest. Somewhat narrow, I suppose.”
“Would you have liked to have gone?” Agnes asked. “To university, I mean?”
Lily turned into Wheelwright Street and slowed down as they drew close to Agnes’ flat.
“Me?” she said, “There was never any question about that as I simply wasn’t clever enough. And when you think about it, so few women went in those days. And I’ve been lucky with the substitute I’ve had through helping my father. Pluse the travel, of course. We went to Greece every summer for years. I was very fortunate.”
Agnes found her keys in the pocket of the dark heavy coat she wore most of the year, peered out at the unrelievedly bleak façade of the building where she lived. Graffiti scotched a tall brick wall. Sheets of discarded newspaper freewheeled along the pavement. She sat for some moments as if resisting the need to leave Lily’s company, the comfort of the warm car against the dank night.
“Until A Woman of No Importance in a couple of weeks, then,” she said suddenly with resolve, “I shall look forward to it. I always enjoy Wilde. It’s the elegance of the language as much as the wit. Such a joy to hear. Thank you for the lift as always, Lily. You are so very thoughtful.”
It was on the way back to Islington and Alfred Street that Lily saw her again.
Or thought she saw her.
The girl, the young woman enveloped voluptuously in the fur coat.
Afterwards, she told herself she could so easily have been mistaken.
It was by a bus stop again, this time in Liverpool Road, but the figure Lily briefly glimpsed was not passive or languid on this occasion, but pacing back and forth on the pavement as if barely containing impatience. Spontaneously, Lily slowed down then realised the foolishness of the gesture, heeded to the horn of the car behind and picked up speed. She was unsure why the young woman had lingered at the back of her mind to resurface so effortlessly. No doubt it was the bold defiance of that coat, the tangible hook to her late mother.
Particularly at a time of recent loss, of inevitable mourning.
Dorothy said, “Will you stay? In this house, I mean. Obviously, it’s always been the family home, in the Page line for generations, but it’s solely yours now, you lucky girl. You should do with it what you like.” She took another potato from the dish in the middle of the table. Lily could never understand how her aunt always remained rake thin considering her voracious appetite.
“Everyone keeps asking me that. About the house. Or hinting at least. I’ve never thought of leaving.”
“Well, hold onto it as long as it suits you,” Dorothy said. “Think of it as your pension.”
“I am already in a pension scheme of sorts,” Lily said. “I don’t need to turn my home into a source of income.”
Dorothy looked across at her, raising her eyebrows scathingly.
“My dear girl, do you have any idea what this place is worth? You sound as naïve as my late brother.”
Lily poured water from the jug into her glass. Filled her aunt’s.
“People say,” she said cautiously, “that prices in Islington have risen considerably. That it’s suddenly become terribly fashionable to live here. What has that got to do with me? It’s simply home. It always has been.”
“Apart from that year or two in Buckinghamshire.”
“During the war. Yes. Nineteen months, actually. And it was very dull, I seem to remember. A lot of fields and cows. I didn’t feel I belonged.”
“You were far too young to make such a judgement or have a view about it, Lily. It was for the best, after all.”
“I know. Of course.”
“There was hardly a child left on the streets of London during those early days. We would have been very remiss not to send you off.”
Dorothy dug a serving spoon into the cauliflower, hefted a wedge onto her plate to nestle next to the remaining meat.
“Now, this business about your job at the school. You’ve never quite explained this demotion of yours.”
Lily felt herself flush. She looked down at her plate, quartered a carrot unnecessarily.
“It’s a change, not a demotion. A re-structuring of administrative staff, that’s all.”
“You used to be secretary to the headmistress. Now you’re not.”
“I was secretary to the old Head. When she retired last summer, it was thought to be the right moment for a new regime. That position is now covered by someone called a P.A. A terribly smart young woman, actually. Wears what look like very expensive suits. High heels.”
“And you stepped aside willingly?” Her aunt’s conversation so often sounded adversarial.
“I was offered a job in the school’s general office instead so there’s a wider range of responsibilities for me now. I’m kept just as busy.” Lily hoped Dorothy would not ask more. It would take little for her to confess her initial sense of humiliation at losing her own office for the bustle of the admin room where the photocopier was constantly in use and phones perpetually ringing. Or it had been at first. Now she had adjusted, accommodated her disappointment and had settled quietly into the routine pattern of her working days which were undemanding. Fortunately, Dorothy’s interest seemed peripheral.
“As long as you are content, my dear, that’s all that matters to me. And I know Walter’s finances were in order so you should be able to manage even if there’s been a drop in salary for you.”
“Of course,” Lily said, “I can more than manage. I’m very lucky.”
“You are indeed. There’s nothing worse than an impoverished single woman and no excuse for it either in this day and age.”
“I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. Or true, come to think of it,” Lily said. She thought of Agnes Wills, living on inadequate state and frugal occupational pensions in a small, rented flat at the edge of a sprawling disadvantaged estate. She pushed her knife and fork together. These large Sunday lunches that Dorothy liked in the middle of the day challenged her and she struggled for sufficient appetite.
“One has choices,” Dorothy said firmly, continuing to eat. “Take me. I decided not to marry so I could keep my job. And even after the civil service decided graciously to retain married women, attitudes hadn’t shifted particularly. Wives were considered a nuisance. Spinsters were accommodated far more willingly. Therefore I took advantage of that situation. And let me tell you, Lily, I had my chances.”
“With men. Or lovers, as they’d be called these days. But as you know well, these things are not always straight forward or appropriate. One has to make sacrifices.” She paused, fork loaded, looked across the table. “Is he still alive? Not that it’s of any interest to me. Or to you, for that matter.”
“Oh yes,” Lily said, “Toby Jessop…he’s certainly still alive.” Her aunt’s allusion was clear.
“I suppose he would be, come to think of it. Decades younger than Walter. Although older than you, of course.”
“Ten years older,” Lily said.
“Should have known better then, shouldn’t he?” She tidied up the remnants on her plate, soused all in gravy, added a dollop of mustard and swiftly finished it. “Now, do we have a pie? Or a steamed pudding with custard would be nice. You haven’t made one of those in a long time, Lily. And it’s always wise to stoke up the calories in these winter months.”


Lily had been named after her ill-fated mother.
Or at least an attempt had been made.
Returning home from her funeral service on an unseasonably wet day in August 1932, Walter Page had looked at his small daughter asleep in the enormous pram cluttering the narrow hall in Alfred Street, and decided that, in some attempt at perpetuity, the child should not, after all, be called Lily, but Helen. A week later the baby had been duly registered and a birth certificate produced in the name of Helen Lily Page.
But her original name had already stuck.
At least with Dorothy.
And since her voice was the only one to be heard clearly in the confused months and early years after the young mother’s death, it was the one that carried. Lily remained Lily.
She had always been relieved. To bear a name given to the infamously beautiful and arguably most significant woman in Greek mythology seemed a burden best despatched. And as Dorothy had said countless times over the years, my brother might be a professor of classics, but there’s no need to bring that sort of thing home and label your children accordingly. Lily in response would remind her aunt that the sole idea had been to honour her late mother rather than suggest anything trojan, but covertly she had agreed. After all, her appearance had never been considered startling. Only very occasionally in her childhood, never in adolescence, had people called her pretty. Rather, they tended to talk of her even, neat features as if floundering for a compliment. But Lily had been unconcerned. Her face, she had concluded equably enough, was suitably commonplace for a woman who had no desire to be infamous. The name Lily sat well with her disposition, her occupation of the life that appeared to have been allotted to her and she had been happy to relinquish all claims on anything more illustrious.
Somewhere around Act 3 of A Woman of No Importance at the first meeting of the New Year, Lily’s attention was caught by a man, vaguely familiar, slipping through the double doors of the hall to occupy a chair at the back and spend the rest of the reading leaning forward with apparent concentration. It was only at the end that Lily remembered who he was. As the meeting closed members broke into small groups to talk or swiftly scattered, some remembering to stack chairs on their way out. The man stood up and walked directly towards Lily who was gathering the usual collection of abandoned cups since it appeared to have become one of her unspecified responsibilities as secretary to ensure their safe return to the refectory.
“I jettisoned the idea of Beginners’ Italian,” he said, “as you can see.” He smiled, assuming recognition. And she obliged. The same dark jacket and head of brown hair noticeably silvering around the temples. The same familiar, direct manner and distinctive voice that were hard to ignore.
“What a pity,” Lily said as she balanced three cups in her left hand and two more in her right. He stepped forward, relieved her of a couple.