What’s Today — Andrew Key


Thin grey light before dawn; thrum of raindrops on the window and the clouds low over the trees the cold outside seeping in through a cracked window the crackle and hiss of the radiators; it is six o’clock emerging into the day and gradually eyes opening becoming aware of a slow vibrating pressure somewhere just almost not quite as though behind the head a slow dull vibrating jarring rattle there as if there is a refuse collection vehicle just there next to the ear but no there’s not—there—there is—it is there inside or just back there up next to the flesh of the earlobe meeting the head and there in the bones at the top of the neck so trying to stretch or crack the joint always stiffening but meet a limit and the suggestion of pain so stop; make coffee waiting and look again at the light (thin grey cold winter light) gradually filling space drifting into the living room as though trying to cling to some warmth under a thin blanket the rain continues to thrum over the cracking radiators the fridge whines blankly sipping coffee wait for the time to go, contemplate breakfast but since at this time of morning it is difficult to stomach much even the thought, shrinking back down deeper and squeezing into the body for a few more minutes a third alarm at last bestirring; out, down, into an empty damp street, up through the bare red-tipped branches the top of the lime trees a smeared softness in the air while the rain fades to a murkier dampness; bus empty city centre empty train station, in the process of repair for weeks but with no progress made yet other than a constant rearranging of various barriers and signs funnelling the now insistently non-existent one-way foot traffic through erratic and opaque routes, the train station empty the automated announcements a pang for elsewhere through there—crossing tramlines (always a rat here sometimes two or three; crows a blackbird once or twice a wren in the overgrown dull grey green brambles) up one hundred and fifty one steel stairs past the muddy so-called amphitheatre (right) and the regenerated social housing project (left) (monumentalised with public verse both printed on billboards and carved into steel and concrete plinths set against the vibrant splashes of the contemptuous neoliberal architectural puke-greens and puke-yellows designed to offset the duller yellow-beige-grey of pressure-hosed concrete (a dirtied and degraded monument to a temporary and faded utopian impulse) there is often an ambulance here waiting while the paramedics drink from their flasks) a few discarded needles unswept cigarette butts bins overflowing every week or so fly-tipped mattresses; the top of the steps: the tramlines the train tracks the closed cinema cranes high rises almost the minarets on the Medina mosque just about the stadium the hospital then out into across the pennines stretching grey unfurled, the sky grey and close closed condensation the thin air smeared with grey light.


Cigarette butts outside on the floor in a mosaic with bird shit cobwebs dead leaves trodden into the doormat—a face looking through the window evaluating the day catching a glimpse of something (of someone) then takes a moment stares a second or two longer than might usually be considered polite a flat expression then the sudden flickering glimmer of possible recognition expressing itself in a smirk a half acknowledgement of familiarity the compulsive wryness seen for a split second before the face folds in on itself and shuts again eyes down into the sink the mug the water scum drain—this pattern repeats itself throughout the morning (though not quite an exact repetition) each half-acknowledgement or half-recognition or wry amused dismissal will add something (though unclear what) an accumulation of significance and meaning or rapport or familiarity (though not always an addition) sometimes the repeated pattern signifies a depletion of recognition or a withdrawal: a step backwards into the closed space of the self or the fractured space of the self or the impossibly open space of the self (though it depends on the self in question); now the day begins; only now does the day really seem to begin with the constantly reboiled kettles sleep encrusted eyes on the clipboard the list of: tasks phone calls updates cancellations—frustrations venting coarse laughter (occasional glimpses of the cruelty stemming from exhaustion) more wryness; complaint in the deep sense of the word: beating the breast and lamenting: a temporary loosening of constraints accreted over the course of the nights, an unshackling of the deep frustration of repetition of backsliding of exhaustion of boredom of overwork; slipping out from the grip of the same patterns reoccurring over and over: medicalised routines habits needs demands individual or personal entrapments in cycles that comprise all existences here each life each shaking hand (yours too) each cup of water spilled each liquid laxative each paracetamol each vial of liquid vitamin D each diazepam lorazepam each dose of metformin or ferrous fumarate; each appearance of each side effect which is sometimes better and sometimes worse depending on a combination of factors (factors inaccessible to everyone); the list of supplements and medications which remain permanently opaque, the medication administration record chart, counting recounting double checking: do you want this today: the answer is almost always yes to almost anything offered: yes why not yes after all it is prescribed: does it seem to be helping: not a question asked often and answered even less and after all not really possible to answer that question: have you remembered to take this yet: usually dismissed I’ll do it later; the hoped for perhaps the anticipated event is not forward progress but a day without significant incident: sustaining the everyday for those who have lost access (temporarily or not), trying mostly to ensure the sustained continuation of life or something that looks like it; the next cigarette then the next then the next.


The smell of urine: an odour which varies according to a combination of factors: not just one scent of urine but the scent of urine on fabric (fresh urine, recently-cleaned fabric) distinct from the scent of urine on fabric (stale urine, recently-cleaned fabric) distinct from the scent of urine on fabric (fresh urine, stale fabric) distinct from the scent of urine on fabric (stale urine, stale fabric) distinct from the scent of urine on the floor (ceramic tile) distinct from the scent of urine of the floor (linoleum) distinct from the scent of urine on the floor (carpet) distinct from the scent of urine as it flows (well-hydrated) distinct from the smell of urine as it flows (poorly-hydrated) distinct from the smell of urine (affected by medication) (all distinctions available in all combinations); each unique different, a topic which merits connoisseurship while always offering an element of surprise: looking at a cistern a toilet bowl (beige-grey ceramic) wanting to understand how the tacky dusty puddle (somehow hair-encrusted) of hours-old piss has found it way to where it now is what the slant of the floor meant for the flow of the urine across the room; now noticing the warning sign placed hopelessly in the middle of the pool: by sight it is clear the texture of the pool will be sticky to touch: liquid half-evaporated motes of dust and dirt clinging to the surface of the sticky paste that was once urine but is now something else other than urine and noticing too the holder in which the toilet brush stands has at some point been knocked over and the small amount of execrable liquid at its bottom that small amount of translucent liquid slightly murky has spilled out now and has flowed too into the tacky expanse of urine across the floor and total they mix, that small amount of liquid and that tacky puddle of old half-dry sticky urine; the stickiness of the floor (it’s like a shit club) and the sharp smell the chemical ambience of the room, so of course you boil a kettle fill the bucket with water the disinfectant comes in bottles illustrated with pine trees (though not pine-scented) (bottles which earlier someone said looks like, it looks like (they didn’t want to say it)—it looks like piss, they smirk: looks like dehydrated piss, dark brown piss, unhealthy piss (piss is so remarkable)) and it seems like no matter how often you mop this floor or how you scrub it it won’t actually ever become clean, as you mop the smell becomes stronger, unmasked by the cleaning chemicals, and you think it will remain encrusted even when the linoleum is gone when the building has collapsed (the city razed the earth recovered by nature) even then you suspect whatever life it is which follows ours will avoid the site avoid this spot because the high concentration of ammonia which has surely seeped deep into the ground and made permanent the scent of urine.


What’s, what’s today today which is it can you today which is today which today is it can you show me in here—today—which is today I’m not sure which today is it can you show me I’m sorry, love, I’m sorry, I’m just, I’m sorry, I haven’t—I just—I’m sorry, oh, I am sorry, God bless you, can you just, shall I have, can I shall I just have half an hour just half an hour more before I come up and what before I come up and have my what my tablets I just feel a bit wuh- today (we need more hand sanitiser more blue paper towels in our bathroom (heard whispered from behind a closed door) can you get them now) (can we do it tomorrow love I’m feeling a bit fragile today I’m not myself today and I’ve got someone coming to see me later and I’m such a state I can’t tell if I’m empty or if I’m full up love (spoken softly from behind another door which remains shut; heard through the sound of chart music played on a local radio station)) what is it today which can can you show me and what shall I do what shall I do will I be alright, you won’t forget will you what if you forget I’m sorry but what’s today and what shall I do and what if you forget and I just I just feel a bit wuh- I feel a bit what I’m sorry love I haven’t done anything to upset you have I right I’ll just have half an hour: today’s today, it’s here, look it says it here yes, it’s Tuesday, yes, it’s quarter past ten, yes, it’s written down, not to worry, not to worry, nothing to apologise for there’s nothing you’ve got to apologise for, yes give yourself half an hour, take an hour if you want love, no rush today, nothing on today, take your time today, you can yes you can have half an hour you can have an hour if you want and then come and have your tablets (I just feel a bit w-what’s today, I am sorry); nothing to apologise for you’re alright love we can do it tomorrow we can it’s ok love ok it’s ok I’ll speak to you later yes I’ll just get that now for you I’ll see you in a bit then I’ll see you later on then yes ok thanks ok alright: and then just for a minute when you step outside you close your eyes you stand there with your eyes closed, for a minute, and you hear birdsong in the hedges the rain has cleared the smeared wetness of the early morning cracked open and now the day is soft bright the blue sky high above you and there’s sunshine for once yes there’s warmth even the birds the birds and you’ve closed your eyes for a minute in the full thick light.

Andrew Key is a writer and former mental health support worker. His first novel, Ross Hall, was published by Grand Iota in 2022. His essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times MagazineLos Angeles Review of BooksThe PointVittlesParapraxis, and elsewhere. Between 2019 and early 2023 he wrote Roland Barfs Film Diary (rolandbarfs.substack.com), a newsletter exploring film criticism as a vehicle for the critique of everyday life. He lives in Sheffield. Twitter: @rolandbarfs