By Nicholas Royle

An extract from Nicholas Royle’s forthcoming novel, Straight to Video, sequel to The Director’s Cut.

After originally joking that she might spend her time in Antwerp shopping, that was in fact what Siân ended up doing while Frank went off to do his next interview. Antwerp, it seemed, according to the people who knew these things, was the latest fashion capital of Europe. The Sunday papers had been full of it before Frank and Siân had left London. The Antwerp Six. Designers Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dirk van Saene, Dries van Noten, Martin Margiela and Walter van Beirendonck. Old story? Of course. The features pages will touch something only if it already stinks to high heaven.

cogels-osylei-nicholas-royle.jpgCogels -Osylei by Nicholas Royle

So, while Siân made her way to Dries van Noten’s Het Modepaleis, Frank took a train one stop out of Centraal Station. ‘Get off at Berchem,’ Harry Kümel had said. ‘It’s easier for me to find a temporary parking spot there.’ 

Centraal Station was in turmoil. The magnificent dome was partly closed off, passengers rerouted via various obscure cut-throughs and emergency-lit passageways. In front of the station a chunk of Koningen Astrid Plein was sectioned off while gigantic machines gnawed away at the earth. Within, numerous lines were out of use, all services leaving from two platforms. Frank boarded a train scheduled to depart in six minutes. He stood by the door and punched in Kümel’s number on his mobile.

‘I drive a silver-grey Citroën C5,’ the director said. ’the licence plate number is –’ The signal suddenly faded. Frank looked at the phone; the battery level was good. He put it back to his ear. ‘– never mind,’ Kümel was saying. ’silver-grey Citroën C5. There are not many C5s around.’

Frank didn’t have a clue what a Citroën C5 looked like, but Citroën was something to go on, and silver-grey narrowed it down still further. He realised he was a little nervous about getting into a car with a possible murder suspect, but clearly he couldn’t be that much of a suspect, not while Johnny Vos was still walking around a free man. Plus, Kümel was a known public figure with half a dozen films to his name. Frank had seen a couple of them. He’d seen Daughters of Darkness, the film on the videotape found with the dead girl, Katya, and Malpertuis, starring Orson Welles and Susan Hampshire. Daughters of Darkness was something of a cult favourite, routinely described as a ‘lesbian vampire flick’. Set in out-of-season Ostend, it starred Delphine Seyrig as the Countess Bathory. Frank had always thought that fans of lesbian vampire flicks, were they to seek out the movie, would actually be quite disappointed. As a genre film it was actually rather low key. But if, instead, you kept Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad in mind as a reference point, Daughters of Darkness made a lot more sense.

Both films, Marienbad and Daughters, starred Delphine Seyrig, a characterful French actress who had played a variety of roles. Both are set in odd, rather grand hotels. And both rely on suggestion and ambiguity, rather than overt revelation. A languid, oneiric mood is common to both films and they share a cool, European sensibility, despite originating in different epochs. Granted the dialogue in the two scripts is somewhat stilted, but there’s a baroque grandeur to the twin structures that requires that very kind of approach. Without it, both pictures could easily sink into bathos.

The rubber-trimmed doors snapped shut and the train edged out of the station. Down below to the right, the gaudy metallic shop fronts of Pelikaanstraat contrasted sharply with the refined stonework of the four-storey Diamond Bourse. On the left-hand side of the train, men bent their backs laying the new lines coming into the station. Within three minutes the train pulled into Antwerpen-Berchem and Frank prepared to get off.

He made his way to the rear of the station and descended the steps to street level. Several cars were parked by the side of the road and all of them were silver-grey. None was a Citroën, as far as he could tell, although cars were hardly Frank’s specialist subject. He checked his watch and paced up and down the pavement. He took out his mobile and checked that too.

No calls, no messages. Perhaps Kümel wouldn’t show. Maybe he was just in the act of bagging up a video of Malpertuis in preparation for his next victim. Just as it occurred to Frank that no-one had yet said how Katya had died, another silver-grey car swept into a space by the side of the road. Frank clocked the Citroën’s double-circumflex decal and ducked to get a look at the driver. He’d seen one picture of Kümel on a website, a profile taken a good fifteen years ago. It was impossible to tell if this was the same guy, but he looked to be in the ballpark as far as age was concerned and he had the relaxed confidence of a man who’d known a certain degree of success. Dark glasses concealed the director’s eyes, so that his face, when it turned towards Frank, remained blank.

Frank climbed into the car and offered his hand.

‘Hello, Harry? Frank Warner.’

Kümel took his right hand from the gear stick and returned the greeting. With his left he tugged the steering wheel to the left, pointing the car’s blunt snout back into the stock car rally that passed for traffic in Belgium.

cogels-osylei-nicholas-royle-2.jpgCogels -Osylei by Nicholas Royle

‘They should have built the international terminal here,’ Kümel said, unexpectedly.

Frank looked at him, waited for him to go on.

Without turning to look at Frank, he continued: ‘Instead of digging up Centraal Station. So much upheaval in the centre of the city. They should have chosen this one instead. It’s close enough to the centre. It’s part of the city.’

‘You’ve lived in Antwerp all your life?’ Frank asked.


‘You were born here?’

‘Born here and lived here all my life.’

‘Is it a dangerous place?’


’This murder…’

‘One woman. A prostitute, I gather. I was not aware they had ruled out suicide.’

‘What about the video? Daughters of Darkness.’

‘Maybe she didn’t like my film. It drove her to suicide. Who knows? Maybe she’s a vampire?’

‘Can’t tolerate coming into contact with running water?’

‘She was walking on the St Anna Strand and got too close to the river. Who knows?’

‘Have the police spoken to you?’ Frank asked, switching tack.

‘Of course,’ Kümel answered straight away, glaring at a driver approaching from the right, who, quite rightly, was not going to concede the right of way. The Belgian system, which prioritized vehicles coming from the right, meant that half the cars on the road at any one time had dented front wings on the right-hand side. It added a whole extra thrill to the business of being a passenger.

Frank waited, but Kümel was too shrewd to be lured into idle talk by the old silence routine. He was cautious, self-contained, quick-witted: a good hand in any game.

‘Look at these places,’ Kümel said, peering up through the windscreen. ‘Built a hundred years ago in a panoply of styles. Art nouveau, neo-renaissance, neo-Gothic, neo-byzantine, Jugendstil. The combination is unique in the world.’

Frank looked out at the streets through which they were driving. Lined by three – and four-storey, ornate buildings with turrets and balconies, lodgments and floral motifs, columns, busts and mosaics, they were, he had to concede, deeply impressive.

‘Where are we?’ he asked the director. ’Still in Berchem?’

‘Cogels-Osylei. Are they not beautiful? Look!’

‘Yes, they’re beautiful.’

‘You’ve seen Providence, of course?’

‘Of course. I’ve seen all Resnais’s films.’

‘He shot part of it here.’ Kümel gestured at the grand buildings. ‘Exteriors. Alain’s a very good friend of mine. I helped him with the locations.’

‘I remember being shocked by the autopsy sequence. The way they opened the rib cage. It looked… I don’t know… real.’

‘So do these houses, don’t they? They look like the real thing. Built a hundred years ago. The genuine article. But they’re not. They’re all for show. It’s all a façade. The houses are falling to bits.’ Kümel turned to glance at Frank as he swung the Citroën by a bus depot. ‘What you see is not necessarily what you get. Do not – as I am sure you would not – place too much trust in appearances.’

Not knowing how he should respond, Frank remained silent as he watched the gloriously mismatched houses slip past the car. Now that he knew that Resnais had filmed parts of Providence here, he couldn’t see these streets as anything other than a film set. The houses were flats, two-dimensional boards propped up at the back. Their windows were tricks, optical illusions suggesting depth where there wasn’t any. No one lived here.

‘People do live here,’ Kümel said. ’They are no longer family homes, of course,’ he added, ‘but are divided up into apartments. In the ‘60s the whole quarter was very nearly bulldozed, but the people protested, as people will always do, and the buildings were saved. See here,’ Kümel directed, ’twelve devils.’

He pointed to a row of carved black demonic figures above a doorway on the left. Frank tried to zoom in and focus on just one of the evilly contorted faces, but the car was picking up speed again, heading out of the fantasy enclave, back into the real world.

Nicholas Royle is the author of four novels and over a hundred short stories.

The Director’s Cut
is published by Abacus.