At Temple House, nothing is ever as it seems.
Louisa is the new, brilliant scholarship student. Finding most of the other students at the all-girls Catholic boarding school as icy and unfamiliar as the drafty mansion, she forms a fierce bond with the intense and compelling Victoria, an outlier and student provocateur.
Their close bond is soon unsettled by the young, charismatic art teacher, Mr. Lavelle—igniting tension and obsession in the cloistered world of the school. Then one day, Louisa and Mr. Lavelle disappear.
There is no trace of either one. It’s the unsolved mystery that captivates the whole country. Year after year, the media revisit it, and the conspiracy theories persist. Now, on the twenty-fifth anniversary, a journalist—a woman who grew up on the same street as Louisa—delves into the past to write a series of articles and uncover the truth. She finds stories of jealousy and revenge, power and class. But will she find Louisa and Mr. Lavelle, too?
Because remember—at Temple House, nothing is ever as it seems.
Told through alternating points of view, Rachel Donohue’s debut novel skillfully, gradually, lets the reader into the hearts and minds of both Louisa and the determined reporter. This page-turner is perfect for fans of Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House or Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa.
Release date: July 6, 2021
Publisher: Workman Audio
Print pages: 304
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The Temple House Vanishing
I dream of it still, the school by the sea. It’s always that first September day that returns. My legs warm and sticking to the plastic seats of the car. The radio drifting in and out of coverage. My parents awkward in their Sunday best. The half-opened map lying on the dashboard, slipping off every now and then. No one speaking.
Finally, the black sign for Temple House hanging off a crumbling granite pillar. My father turning slowly through the rusting, wrought-iron gates and up the winding, gravel driveway. The light more green than gold now, soft and low under the tall trees. The sense of hush as we finally emerge from shade to the edge of the cliffs, the sky stretching in front of us. The drive is narrow and sandy here, a sense of journey’s end. I press my head to the cool glass, my curiosity like a fever. My suitcase and all that it signifies beside me on the seat. I open the window, strain my neck but can’t see below to the waves, only sky and white birds. The air cool on my face.
Am I happy? I can’t remember now.
A thin film of dust or sand is thrown up and smears the windscreen. The drive swerves away from the coast, the path is more uneven. We pass between tall, thick yew trees, a last gateway, before a green lawn opens in front of us. The cliffs fenced off with a small warning sign. There is a large pond, leaves and dirt gathering in the corners of the pale water, and beyond this, net-less tennis courts locked up since summer term ended.
In my dream, Temple House, in all its Victorian, turreted austerity, emerges from a mist but this must surely be a trick of memory. Though in truth, that winter of 1990, it did have its own climate. Even the sunniest of days elsewhere could be gray and dull there due to its exposed position high above the sea. There are girls, certainly, standing on the wide granite steps waiting to greet the new students. The prefects. Their long hair and black cloaks flapping in the wind as they wait to welcome us. There is a nun behind them in the deep, arched porch. She is ticking off the list of new students. The fourth-year scholarship girls arriving the Sunday after term begins.
I step from the car to the smell of seaweed that blows in from the beach. The air salty and colder, suddenly it seems, than September should allow. The car door is whipped from my hand and slams. The house looms over us. It is red brick, three stories tall, with large windows, their frames painted a deep green. Thick ivy reaches up to touch the lower sills. One side of the house is shaped like a tower and protrudes forcefully from the rest of the building. The windows look dark in the early-evening light, shades pulled low, giving it a subdued, half-eyed gaze.
As we ascend the steps I look upwards. There are three girls watching us arrive from a large, arched window on the second floor. They are framed in an edging of stained glass and are standing in what I would come to understand was the Maiden’s Chamber. The turn in the stairs.
The dream always ends here.
I know we, the scholarship girls, were greeted by the nun with the list, Sister Ignatius. She was a small, dainty woman, dressed in the navy and black habit of the order. Quietly spoken, she shook my parents’ hands, directing us through the porch to a sitting room on the left of the hall where there were refreshments. There was an air of curt efficiency about her. Nothing wasted in her movements. As I walked past I glanced at her profile, she looked like a silent bird of prey. It might have been her nose, which was slightly beaked, and the way she had of turning her head very slowly. Her face was white, chalk white, and fine boned. I understood when you became a nun you took a different name. I wondered did any of them mind doing this, or were they just like the other women, like my mother who took my father’s name when she married and pretended to be happy. All their old selves forgotten, packed away along with their records and books.
We entered a hallway, dark wood paneling on the walls and polished orange and black tiles on the floor, the pattern in the shape of a spiral. There was a smell of pine and lemon and behind that, very faintly, meat. A room off the hall had a sign on the door: “Visitors.” We entered and one of the prefects, without speaking, poured tea into china cups. She had long, fair hair and around her neck there was a small silver cross on a chain. It dangled down as she leaned over the teapot. After pouring it she left the cups on the table and sat by the window, her head turned from us.
The room itself was large, brighter than the hall, with a high ceiling and the walls were painted a pale green. They were bare except for a large portrait of a nun and a crucifix. The floor was covered with linoleum, also green, and in places there were slight rips.
The prefect said nothing and stared out to the sea.
Eventually, the two other scholarship girls and their families joined us, along with Sister Ignatius. We stared silently and morosely at each other across the table. One of the girls kept biting her nails. The other hunched her shoulders in the chair and looked like she might cry. After a summer of shorts and T-shirts, my uniform felt itchy and constrictive. Sister Ignatius spoke a few words of welcome but so quietly and with such economy it was nearly impossible to hear. She barely opened her mouth, her lips were thin, tight.
My father almost slipped off the couch in his attempts to lean in and listen. My mother looked dazed and slightly confused as to how we had ended up here. She had also worn too much makeup and looked out of place, desperate somehow. Not that the other mothers looked much better; one woman wore a white tracksuit top. We looked cheap and our insecurities made us act as if we were suspicious of each other. Furtive. After some moments of awkward silence, Sister Ignatius clapped her hands gently, like an emperor whose quiet but insistent whims must be met. The prefect jumped to her feet. Awake again.
I don’t remember if I hugged my parents as we said goodbye, but I imagine not. It wasn’t our thing.
It has stayed with me for another reason too. That day. It was the first time I saw a dead body. After our parents left, the prefects led us to a small cloakroom off the hall where we dropped our bags. One of the girls addressed the group, telling us a nun, Sister Josephine, had died the night before and was laid out in the school’s small church. The girl who spoke had dark red hair caught in a bun, and pale skin. Her eyes were gray and large. Her name was Helen. We walked behind her, down a long corridor with a polished parquet floor. The walls were lined with framed photographs—the hockey team of 1962, the debating team of 1979, the graduation ball of 1985. All of the faces frozen in time, with awkward smiles and bad hairstyles.
The church was accessed through a heavy door, which I would later learn led to the nuns’ quarters. It was dark after the fluorescent lights of the hallway and it took a second for my eyes to get used to the gloom. It was tiny, like a church designed for a doll’s house. It was lit by tall, white candles, laid out all around the altar, and the whole space smelt strongly of the same lemon polish of the other rooms. There were only eight pews in total. The altar, carved out of white marble with a vein of dark pink running through it, seemed too large.
The nun was laid out in an open coffin with thick cream satin lining the inside. The prefects led us to the front row and indicated that we should kneel. I was last into the pew and so my head was level with the dead nun. I could feel her pale, silent presence out of the corner of my eye. We all went on our knees, heads bowed. What prayer might I have said? “Oh Lord, don’t forsake me” possibly. Is that even a prayer? I find all the words and incantations that we repeated are gone now. Dissolved.
We stayed there in silence for what seemed like an age but was probably only five minutes. I was to get used to the sense of time suspended when you entered the church. The girls around me shifted uncomfortably. One stuck her fingernail into the center of her palm and was slowly twisting it deeper into the skin, another was breathing quickly, short, tight breaths. Like her heart was shuddering.
As we got up to leave, I looked at the deceased nun full-on. Her hands were clasped together on her chest. She was holding a large wooden rosary, the crucifix intertwined between her wrinkled fingers. Her face, unlike her hands, was mostly unlined, taut, and a few strands of gray hair were visible under the wimple. She didn’t look asleep, as I thought dead people might, but empty, like a hollow doll. It was the gap the soul left when it transcended to God. You weren’t really a person anymore. Just a vessel, vacated. I had read about this.
One of the other new girls said she felt unwell and two of the prefects led her out. There was always one. The prefects put their arms around her shoulders, smiles of satisfaction on their faces, as if this had been the appropriate response and the plan had worked. Find the hysteric. The rest of us trailed out behind them, tracing our steps back along the corridor. The girls staring out at us in the photos on the walls seemed more sympathetic to me now, like we had shared in some initiation.
Afterwards, we were brought to our rooms. We dragged our bags up the stairs, passing under the large window above the stairwell where the three girls had watched our arrival, panels of blue and red light reflected on the floor. The wallpaper was salmon-colored and textured but in places mottled and peeling, as if the sea air was seeping through. The stairs to the third floor were narrow, less grand. My room was spacious, with a window that overlooked the forest that lay at the edge of the school grounds. I would learn later that the rooms with sea views went to the girls whose parents made donations to the school. There was a small bookcase and a desk beside my bed. The walls were white and empty, bar a crucifix that hung above the door and a large photograph of a nun holding a chalice. It was one of those pictures that was originally black and white but looked like it had been colored in by crayon. The chalice was a gleaming yellow and her eyes an unnatural blue.
I was to share with a girl from the year ahead of me, Alice. As I unpacked my case she entered the room and sat on her bed. She was tall and broad, fresh-faced, her hair fair and curly. She immediately asked me what subjects I was taking and had I ever boarded before. I asked her where the other students were; the house was eerily quiet. She seemed not to hear me and began brushing her hair. I thought we might be due back downstairs that evening for a talk with Sister Ignatius and a chance to meet others from my class. Alice indicated no, we were to stay in our room and she would help me get settled. After all, I must be tired.
She told me then that the “drama” girl in the chapel had apparently thought she saw the eyelids of the nun quiver as she lay in her coffin. I hung up my few clothes and laughed along with her at the girl’s stupidity. We didn’t speak much after this. But later that night, when the lights went out and Alice was asleep, I lay there thinking about resurrection and how it might be the worst thing ever. You don’t want to see the dead rise, no matter how much you might miss them. That first night in the hard, narrow bed was long. By midnight all I could think of was the nun climbing out of her coffin and walking the corridors in search of her missing soul. Her rosary beads dragging along the floor behind her.
It began with death, my time in Temple House.
Of course we were all bored. Bored and in search of meaning.
I have tried to remember who I was that autumn and winter of 1990, what was my defining feature. Maybe there was nothing that distinguished me, and that in itself could possibly be the answer. I do know I wanted to be seen as different, special. But then, doesn’t everyone?
I try not to analyze my past. I mostly choose to actively fake my existence. To reinvent it as something different, something I have only a casual interest in. It is how I cope. On my last day at the school, lying in the grass, with the sea below me, I stitched the undamaged bits back together and then covered over the rest with new material. I created a new philosophy for existing that has guided me these past twenty-five years. I never attempt to understand anyone; I just observe them. They are truly the other. You can never know anyone. There are no soulmates, man or woman, just other minds and other histories. Intimacy is a kind of dream.
This approach has served me well and I only changed, thought differently about it, after Victoria jumped from the roof of her offices.
At Victoria’s funeral I had a sudden vision of her. Her divorce had just been finalized and she was in overbearing mode, ordering wine and insisting people try the shellfish. Control was her way of handling failure, which divorce is, I suppose. She was talking about taking a leave of absence from work and going traveling. As I remembered her, I thought about how she had become an idea to me long before she died. We had no way of listening to each other anymore. A kind of nervous anxiety took hold of her when I was there. Her head would turn sharply as if I was judging her, or she would fold her arms in a hunted, defensive manner. Our attempts to connect with one another were invariably unsuccessful. We were never able to recapture what had once been. There were too many barriers now.
It was only as she was standing alone under the neon light of the sign outside the door of the restaurant that she talked about it. A journalist had been in touch. A woman who was writing a story about Temple House and wanted Victoria to contribute and if possible to suggest other people she might talk to. Suddenly, all sense of her as an ordinary woman with a neatly packaged life and tidily referenced history fell away. As it always did. She could only ever play at normal for a while.
She was twitchy and nervous, fumbling for a cigarette. She looked frail and thin. She wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping. I felt like holding her. But I couldn’t; that was not who we were anymore. So I walked away, turning back only once to see if she had left. ...
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