Tim Etchells

The City of Untried Chemistry

He went through her things many times after she disappeared, but if at first he was hoping to find a sign post to her whereabouts, it was soon just his habit.
Looking was a late-night searching for non-existent clues in the piles of clothing, papers, books - all the lights on, all of the time. It was an action connected to comfort and discomfort at the same time. He was bewildered in the daytimes, sleepless at night.

He wrote his name on the condensation smeared glass of a window. He wrote her name too, and then erased it, just like the world had erased her. Steven he wrote. Then Rachel.

He called the obvious people too – her sister, former lovers, grandmother, father, and even brother, but none had news. He called for weeks and the answers were always the same – mute and heavy – no news is no news. Sometimes they’d spill tears when he called them, as lost in the bewilderness of her disappearance as he was, or mantra questions, talking in smaller and smaller circles. Sometimes they’d burst in jagged static anger – what the fuck had happened or what the fuck hadn’t happened – but in the end the phone calls just got more and more silent. No news is no news is no news is no news.

Alongside the obvious people he also called the most obvious places – the hospitals and morgues, mental institutions and homeless shelters. One night he went running to the morgue on the Kruislaan, running in the rain by the tram tracks, running and feeling the rain and hearing the screech of the trams metal wheels, running hard and scattering pigeons like so many thunderclaps in the dusk that was slowly turning to darkness near the big Albert Heijn. All the while as he ran he was repeating to himself the story of him and her, Steven and Rachel, and the terrible how and why it had to end like this – her on a slab, face bloated after weeks in some canal, or burned up in some nightclub fire. But when he got there, the she on the slab was not actually she. And he was stood there, in that fluorescent light they have in the tv-movies, looking down at someone else, at someone else’s fuck up, someone else’s problem.

Even three months afterwards he still thought he saw her sometimes. In the crowds outside Central Station. Jogging in Vondel Park. Having coffee in the place there with all the film posters. But it was only ever someone somewhat like her, never her. Same hair but different height. Same lips, different eyes. Same laugh, but different in every other sense. The world was a shit-hole that had no more Rachel in it, only Rachel. Everything was pointless.

In this time he was thin as bones. He read no books. Saw no movies. Ate little. Drank water. Looked at the ground.


He had a name as mentioned already: Steven. And a birth date: 9 March 2000.

After a time, going through Rachel’s things in search of clues to her whereabouts, he even began to call the more obscure numbers in her address book. Not family members anymore, not even mutual friends. Peripheral figures. Ex-school friends. Ex-workmates. Ex-neighbours. Fuck knows what. Approaching the end of this process he was calling persons not even graced with two names – just near-mythical beings, identified by single names, biro-scrawled in Rachel’s all capitals hand. There was a ROY. A SANNE. A DIRK. A GEORG. A COLLIEN. But they were all clueless.

There were even one-letter people. An A. A B and an H. But they were clueless too. Only ciphers.

After that it was the private detectives. Two of them. They drained money. Wasted time. Got nowhere. The last one said: she’s gone, more gone than anyone I ever had to trace. You’d better forget her. She may not be dead. But she isn’t coming back.

Many nights after she vanished Steven would go to some club or another – Zodiac or Menage a Cinquante – and there he’d lose himself too, in his own way, on X or other things that hardly had names at all. It was a habit he had – days of work (a shit job, not worth the glory of inclusion) and then nites of delerium, hard dancing, sweat, space. Camaraderie of anonymous bodies locked together in a sea of noise. Occasional sex. Occasional conversations shouted above the crashes of sound all bent into rhythm.


It was in Menage a Cinquante that he first heard mention of Erasure. Two blokes sat next to him were talking to The Most Beautiful Barmaid in the Whole World and it was late night talk – all drug boasting, tragedy-swapping and colourful lies. Steven didn’t pay it full kind of attention – he was drifting in any case, shimmering slightly in the edge of whatever he’d taken, pulled in and out of the present, backwards and forwards from reverie.

But what he heard must’ve sunk into him somewhere because waking late the next morning he lay in his bed (futon from factory pallets) and played it back – a story in splinters. These guys were telling The Most Beautiful Barmaid in the Whole World about a drug, a new one, they said was called Erasure. What’s it do? she says. It takes you out of the world, says one of the guys and shakes his head, laughing.

Morning heading fast for lunchtime. From the bed Steven watched the sunlight stop-framing on the walls and the sky divided and re-divided by the window frames into crude all-blue Mondrians. He turned the conversation over and over in his head – the guys talking, the Most Beautiful’s question, the unexpected answer. He turned it like a 3-d model of a building as yet unbuilt. Trying different perspectives, looking for angles that he hadn’t seen at first, looking for clues.

That night he changed cities. He left the City of Lost Love and joined instead the City of Untried Chemistry.


He went back to Menage a Cinquante and talked to The Most Beautiful Barmaid in the Whole World and she sent him to Zero where she knew a guy who she thought ‘might be able to help’. This guy, it turned out, was from the Rumour City and he talked and whispered, rumouring this and rumouring that for an hour or two, all jumbled intrigues, possible impossibles. In the end he passed Steven on to a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend (all rumourers), a guy who ran a Software place called Sadique’s in the Van Ostadestraat. Steven walked. It wasn’t raining. He had nothing else to do. This guy in Nelimstraat wasn’t Sadique, though that was, he admitted, the name of the store. In point of fact the owner didn’t have a name, or at least that’s what he insisted. No names he said, or else different names in different places. It depended on the question, it depended on the time, it depended on the what and the why. Steven talked to him one hour (seemed like longer) while the guy rumoured him a couple of hundred times with things neither true or untrue about some drugs which might be called Erasure and other drugs that might not be called Erasure and the effects they might have, or might not have, if ever they should turn out to actually exist. Talking with rumourers was conversation to drive a person crazy with frustration – a sea of ‘maybes’, and ‘people says’, a fog comprising ‘there is talk of’, a night black with ‘no one really knows’ lit prettily with stars of ‘maybe’. Steven was more-or-less immune to it, having once lived with rumourers and having been one himself for a while. He knew the ebb and flow of it – the way that truth dripped inexorably between the cracks of stories, versions, lies.

Invisibility? He asked at some point, direct and to the point.

No said the guy who didn’t like to be pinned down, not even with a name. More like the name you told me - Erasure – you take this tab and you leave no trace in the world.

No trace?

No credit card traces, no phone records.

Steven, insisting: But physically, in the world? Invisible?

Nameless guy: No. No. Not at all. Its more like: unnoticeable.


A brown notebook. Muji. (Stevens)

List of words.

Erasure? (Other names)

Push Back
Spell Three


A club that only started when all other clubs were closing. A 6 in the morning refuge from fast breaking dawn. Pure. Peopled by the dedicated and driven, kids that were still on it or looking for more of it, whatever it was or would be. Dark. Loud. Dancers – kids really – in next to nothing and dayglo contacts. Dodgy looking older guys who didn’t know any better. A bar that only sold water.

Steven talked. To this guy and that guy and some other guy. Nothing.

Then later. He talked again, to some guy who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who knows someone who knew someone that disappeared. A drug had been involved. The name of it: Erasure.



The City of Untried Chemistry, is formed of those who want to use new, untested or experimental drugs, serviced by individuals and commercial entities, as appropriate to provide them with what they want or need. The city population contains, but is not limited to, several groups, especially those suffering from terminal or otherwise incurable illness in search of medicine that is elsewhere not licensed for use on humans. Alongside those seeking relief from health problems the city also provides a context for people renting out their bodies as test objects and serves as a forum for drug orientated self-experimenters who wish to explore the effects, perceptions and changes that new drugs might bring to them.


Davis lived in Amsterdam 2.0 for all very wrong reasons. Somewhere down the line he had worked on the fringes of an agency (you couldn’t really call it that but there is no other word) connected (via more or less untraceable route) to some other agency (with the same rider as above about this inadequate word), an agency based in what was left of the United States of America. Quite what it was (the agency) you couldn’t get out of Davis with any kind of truth drug, death threats, electric shocks, sleep deprivation or a scalpel. Three guys in Berlin had once tried all of that for a couple of weeks and all they got for it was absolute silence and their own brutal, unexpected deaths. Davis was not the kind of person to have friends. And he was well known as a murderer, if you knew who to ask. On a more positive side he was the kind of person who could find or track things down and that was very often his job. Even as a child he’d had developed a considerable reputation based on his knack for finding things that other people had lost. He’d found keys for his parents, occasional wallets for a neighbour or visitor, broaches, cars, and even other children. As an adult he’d found several kilos of depleted uranium, several hundred guns, several thousand tedious but probably important documents, several women and several men that really did not want to be found.

As a rule Davis drifted in the cities of Amsterdam 2.0, seeking here and there, moving through, never exactly in any city at all, indifferent to the changing of laws or custom, completely lawless except unto himself and what he called the pragmatism. It wasn’t a bad way to live.

He’d been tracking some hospital researchers who maybe knew something about an AIDS medicine with side-effects that his bosses thought might be interesting. Before that he’d been looking for the former-head of security from Ajax Football Club who’d gone missing in Sao Paolo and then was rumoured to be back in the Netherlands and hiding in Amsterdam 2.0. Before that he couldn’t really remember or possibly preferred to forget. It might have been the thing with the Somalis or it might have been the ghost hunting thing. It seemed that everything ended up in Amsterdam these days, dead or alive. And when it did he was the person to find it.

For the most part when Davis heard a rumour he ignored it. That was a part of the pragmatism. He’d heard almost everything in his time, even before he came across the crazed proliferation of Rumour City. So inured to its speculation had he become that the circulation of any particular story at any particular time left him pretty well indifferent. So far as he was concerned the whole world was pretty well all talk, all of the time.

But when the rumour of Erasure first reached him he’d missed a step or two. The invisible thing was interesting, but the thing about erasing the marks people made in the world (credit cards, phone bills, fingerprints even?) was, by his guess, a potential world-changer. Too good to be true, certainly, but also too good to be missed. So in the frame of the pragmatism he made a judgement call. He made inquiries. Asked some questions. Listened to some phone calls. Applied some pressure. Called in some favours. And found out much less than he wanted.

He filed a report – a formality, just a mention – and didn’t think too much about it. It was the same week that the hostages got released in Helsinki and for the most part his mind was on other things. He floated his report on Erasure/Silencio into the system to see if anything fed back. And it certainly did. Loud and clear he said. Within a day of his report he’d been told to drop everything. Drop it all and chase the ‘disappearing’ drug. Back there, in what was left of the US of A, that agency (with all the riders here, on the use of that word) had been very taken with the thought of Erasure.


Following questions from person to person, club to club and back again, Steven met a girl called Manja in a bar called Floating I.P. She was blonde and full of herself.

She said that tomorrow or the next day she could bring him what he wanted.


The population of cities swelled or shrank. New cities came and went. The nights got darker. The stars more spectacular. The Suicide City teetered forever on the edge of extinction. The City of Pleasure grew with exponential ease. The Library City gathered dust and books on shelves, and wisdom and a certain kind of love. The City of Hope did its best in what can only be described as difficult circumstances.


Davis met some guy (Steven) in a bar who said his girlfriend had disappeared. They’d been together three years. Her name was Rachel. When the Steven guy spoke her name he made a hand gesture, like writing a line right thru her: Rachel.

Davis asked questions, not like a cop or something, but carelessly, just like a guy in a bar. He said his own name was Dietrich and laughed a bit, internally, at the long long line of D’s that he’d been in the last nine years. The Steven guy said this Rachel had vanished for good. No one had a clue. She hadn’t left a trace. She went out one night and never came back. He said an Untried drug might be involved. A drug called Erasure.

The Steven guy seemed straight up. That said he was clearly new to the Untried and he couldn’t keep his hands out of the possibilities – he was on chemicals most of the time, swinging this way and that ,from night to night and moment to moment, ecstatic one day, frantic as a lab rat the next. Dietrich (Davis) acted friendly, but not like he was cruising him, just careless, casual. They met a few times, apparently by accident. Chatted. Shared needles, inhalers, whatever. Dietrich (Davis) watched Steven while he dozed at the table, grinned when he talked nonsense, listened when he made any sense.

The weeks passed and for his part Dietrich (Davis) heard plenty of rumourer stories which he shared readily with Steven – that stuff was hardly confidential. Major Rumour Number One. He’d heard that Erasure was something the Russians had been working on back in the Cold War, something they’d resurrected research when problems got so bad in Chechneya. Perhaps they’d dreamed of an invisible, untraceable army. Who knew. Those military types sometimes got into some weird shit. There was no denying that, especially after what had happened to Nebraska.

The Steven nodded. Nebraska had been weird.

Davis said he’d also heard a Major Rumour Number Two; that the drug was traditional. Related to something shamanic. Probably Amazon in origin (the geographical location not the Internet store). Out there in some jungle the Rumour Number Two said the drug did complicated stuff – took you to ancestor land, took you back down the spinal cord, threw you far off and into the future. But here in Amsterdam 2.0 it had started to work different in some way that no-one could’ve predicted. Changing the person but also changing the world. It sounded crazy but it was not hard to find people that believed that kind of stuff. Dietrich (Davis) said you could walk into any café on the Rembrandtplein and find a dozen of them, anytime.

The Steven nodded, taking all of this in somehow. Drifting towards what he hoped might be a conclusion. A way to Rachel.

That night ended, as many did, in bar called Hawkings. The two of them laughing hysterically. A long stream of gags about special relativity.


Davis at this point was following orders. He was curious, yes. But also, basically, following orders. After all, if they told him to follow a decrepit old woman and make notes on her shopping habits he would do that 24 hours a day for eternity and he would never have needed a reason. Or if they told him to kill a child it would have been likewise. It would have been no problem. No reason would have been needed. He had done that a couple of times. And it was really the same with the Erasure thing, or Spell three or whatever it was called. When he got the message to say drop everything and chase that he did as he was told. He chased.


Night, or morning. Pigeons crossed the sky. Homing pigeons. Roaring in the sky.

An Untried club. Very strange. Steven and the new guy he had met, the loner Dietrich (Davis). Reserved in a way. But friendly. Company. Club with no name. Just the shell of a firebombed McDonalds on the Haarlemmerweg. In some places you could still see burnt and melted fixtures. Here and there people dealt this and that. Mostly recreational drugs. If you call that recreation (Dietrich). But some medicinal trade went on in the corners. Pills. Lotions. A guy with a gas cylinder sold 5 minute sessions hooked up to an inhaler mask. A procession of really sick guys and really skeletal sick guys made their way through the club, jostled by punters, made their way to the corner by the old deep-fat frier where the guy had his stall.

For an hour or so Steven watched the guys arrive, do the gas and then depart. Looking for differences in their bearing. Couldn’t see anything.


In the same club. Zoning out. (Music). Light. Shimmering. A stack of old tvs running footage of the assassination of Milosovic. The rain of bullets in the Hague.

Near two am a woman went past Davis and smiled. Blonde. Full of herself. Her eyes bright and flickering, as wide as a cinema screen.

Soundtrack of whirls, cries, spider whispers.

Steven. Manja.


The woman spoke to Steven.

He looked at her.

She gestured.







Time going kind of slow.



Still moving.



She would have done a deal with Steven.

But the other guy. The other one.

The ‘Dietrich’.

Freaked her out.

(street noise)

There was.

A moment.

Where she.

Suddenly decided

That she was out of there.

She ran.

And in her own way.

Also vanished.


Cock-sucking fucking shit-bitch.



Later. The woman, Manja, took a bunch of pills to a couple of cancer patients in the Academisch Ziekenhuis. Got paid then took the money home cos she didn’t like to carry it all, at least not that much. Took some other pills and some other other pills to some other patients in the V.U.. Pills in purple, red, blue, another blue, green. Pills with writing. Letters. Names. Logos. Icons. Blank pills. In between trips she did the paperwork. Complicated. Multinational. Transnational. Clearances. Test Results. And then a few trips to the clubs. Shifting non-medical stuff. Easier though not so lucrative in fact. No paperwork with these. More blues, reds, icons, logos. Some people might have found it easy to confuse all those agents that act on the body, all those tickets to ride. But she never confused anything. She could tell everything at a glance.

Its was morning when she got into bed. No peace for the wicked as she often said, at least not much and then laid her head on the pillow. She slept some but soon got woken. Unexpected. There was a gun to her head. It was the Dietrich guy. He made himself clear, using language, that he wanted the drug. The one that people were calling Erasure. Spell Three. Whatever. Whatever.

She understood that he meant what he said. Not in language. But in the idea that he would kill her if she fucked this up.

She shrugged. Gave it to him. Took a sleeping pill and slept again.


Report (samples enclosed).

Users of the drug are, for the moment at least, unavailable for comment since, according to the bulk of the rumours they each disappear, leaving no trace in the world.

The nature of this disappearance is variously reported but most of the information is as sketchy as reports on the origins and nature of the drug itself which seems to belong at least as much to the Rumour City as it does to that of Untried Chemistry. There are claims involving invisibility. Other claims of the erasure of personal records, electronic traces, even photographs. I was shown a few blank polaroids. Heard stories about the contents of hard-drives reduced instantly to a long string of 0s. You have to remember that this information comes from the same people who would mention that once taking this drug you leave no footprints in snow. So it may be unwise to credit them with too much certainty.

In any case. The samples enclosed should provide a basis for experiments.


Late the night after the Manja person ran off, Steven went back to Hawkings where he’d often closed an evening with Dietrich. The music was still thumping but Dietrich never showed. Not that night and not any other night, not night after night after. Like he had disappeared too, in his own way,

And when Steven went looking for Manja there was prescious little trace of her too.

He was once again left following clues that were looking old or very cold.


New cities were formed. Their populations swelled and then shrank again, depending on the climate of the times, the mood, the fashion, the need or hopes of the culture.

Autumn became winter. Snow fell on the ice canals. The Children’s City had one last playful crusade. The Sex City one more orgy. The Slave City one more auction of willing slaves. The Backwards City continued to run backwards, in real time, its citizens washing in dirt, crying at the comedies in the Cinema on Regulierbreestraat, laughing at funerals.

Steven left the Untried. He was over that, or thought he was. He joined the Quiet City and walked on feet of whispering. Slept late and soft. Took time. The snow fell.

One night he was at home. Lain on the futon, and thinking, for the first time in many months of Rachel. Spread around him an assortment of spilled letters and papers – the thin still threads connecting him to her.

Round midnight he heard a noise outside the door but when he got there, to see who it might be there was no one there. Instead there was an envelope on the ground. Hand-delivered. And marked with his name.

Inside: A single white tablet, marked with the letters S3.

And a note, that said, simply:



Report (continued)

Only one source I spoke to claimed to have taken the drug. A woman, aged about 35.

She described a place that she spent six months in. A small town, far from anywhere. In this place she said, she had dreams of her old life back in Amsterdam 2.0. These dreams were impossibly brief, impossibly distant – snatches of a world far away. Traumatised at first she adjusted to her life in the new town, learning its language, its ways of being. She was vague. It sounded like Mexico. Or parts of Afghanistan. Impossible to tell. And in any case not a real place. Over time the dreams of her old life got longer, and stronger. She said that she came to realise that these dreams were in fact her old life; that she was watching the shadow of herself slip traceless through the world. Obsessed with this glimpse of her self she began to spend more and more time asleep. The dreams got long and stronger still. In the end she said that the dreams became her life again; she left the town and came back to the world. A year had elapsed, or so she claimed.


Steven woke on a long road, bordered on both sides by scrubland. There was bright sunshine of a kind he had not seen before. Up ahead he could see a settlement of some kind. He started to walk. For a moment he had flashes of another landscape. Trams and snow. But when he blinked and steadied himself this was gone. He looked ahead to the settlement again. And started to walk.