Tim Dowling: I’ve recently been added to a mystery WhatsApp group

My phone pings while I am sitting at the kitchen table. I take it out of my pocket and discover that I’ve been added to a WhatsApp group by someone I’ve never heard of. This is, I think, marginally preferable to being added to a WhatsApp group by someone I know.

Dozens of other people, added alongside me, have already left the group. I don’t know whether it’s a scam or a mistake, but even as I press the exit button, I find myself intrigued by the name of the group. It is called, simply, “Cliff’s situation”.

“Chatting to your little friends?” says my wife who, I realise, is seated across from me.

“Not really,” I say, trying not to look startled.

“What’s for supper?” she says.

“Dunno,” I say.

“I bought chicken,” she says. “And coriander.”

“Two random foodstuffs,” I say. “Excellent.”

“I thought you could make that chicken and coriander thing,” she says.

“That’s your recipe,” I say.

“I don’t cook,” she says.

At the start of 2020, my wife announced that she would never cook again, and she has kept her word. At the time I accepted her retirement without protest, because I don’t really mind cooking except, it transpires, when I do. I return to my phone, scrolling up, scrolling down.

I know that back when my wife was still cooking, she would have looked up the chicken and coriander recipe before she went to the supermarket to remind herself of the considerable number of ingredients required to make it. Now that she doesn’t cook, I am certain she has purchased only the two ingredients in the title. I think: Cliff, man, what happened to you?

“Hello?” my wife says, waving her hand in front of my eyes. I glance up at the clock.

“Oh look,” I say. “It’s nearly time for my boring drink.”

Like a lot of people, I have forsworn alcohol for the month of October. My wife, who stopped drinking about the same time she stopped cooking, has let it be known she thinks this is a good idea.

I stand up, take a tall glass from the cupboard, open the fridge and look inside.

“That’s not enough chicken,” I say.

“It’s only the three of us,” my wife says, indicating the oldest one sitting behind his computer at the end of the table.

“Yo,” he says.

“Where’s the other one?” I say.

“At the pub,” my wife says.

I fill my glass with ice, freshly squeezed lime, sparkling water and a generous measure of expensive ginger cordial, before retreating to a spot on the sitting room sofa to drink it. Twenty minutes later, I feel exactly the same. My wife comes in and sits down next to me.

“I’m hungry,” she says.

“Fine,” I say, standing up and walking into the kitchen. A minute later, I return.

“There are no onions!” I shout.

“Oh dear,” my wife says.

“I bought onions yesterday!” I say.

“Someone must have used them,” she says. “You’re not the only one who cooks round here.”

“I think you’ll find I am,” I say.

“This is not my fault,” she says.

I pull on my coat, check the pockets for a face mask and step into the night. I walk quickly to the shop because it’s raining hard, but on the way back I slow down to make sure I come home wet enough. My phone pings. I stop to peer at the screen through rain-spattered glasses. Messages are being exchanged in the family WhatsApp group.

“Do you still need me to cook,” writes the youngest one, from the pub.

“No,” my wife writes. “But Dad’s in a rage because there are no onions. He had to go to the shop.” This is accompanied by an expressionless emoji: it doesn’t even have a mouth.

“Am I allowed to eat what is cooked then,” writes the youngest.

“Yes!” my wife writes.

I look up at the rain falling at a slant through the light of the street lamp above me, and wonder if I wouldn’t prefer to be in Cliff’s situation.