I observed Fizza glancing at it obliquely, then her face noticeably relaxed. It was an even more modest sum than she had thought it would be.
But neither party made a move to settle it.
"Well," said the waiter, clearly losing all respect for this miserly group of customers, "Who is going to pay?"
He had pushed the paper towards my husband. Flustered, I said, "Hafeez, you can pay." And inwardly I prayed that he had the amount with him, even though it was a trifling one.
"Yes, of course," he said, avoiding meeting my eyes so that I would not see the fury in them. A totally measly, mean meal, and I have to pay for it?
The bill being settled, with the most minor of tips for the waiter, we squeezed our ways out of the restricted space. Wali and Fizza took us home.
"Where are we going now?" she asked him, as, having dropped us at our place, he drove back towards the food market.
"To have a proper meal," he growled, "I'm completely hungry."
"It is good he is such a good-tempered husband," Fizza reflected. "Any other husband would be taunting me mercilessly about my uncle and aunt's miserliness. But why on earth had they to insist on hosting the outing when they could apparently ill afford it?
"I could not imagine such a miserly meal. We would have dined better at home. What happened to my niece and her husband today?"
Both sides were totally baffled, and terribly hurt. Neither could find an explanation for the other's odd behaviour.
"But why did they make me pay?" questioned Hafeez.
"You should know: she is your relative," I retorted cruelly.
The telephone rang.
"Whatever the quality or the size, we have to express the customary thanks and appreciation," Wali had been telling Fizza.
"Yes," she said shamefacedly, unable to offer, or to think of, any key to this very embarrassing mystery.
There were times when she really loved her husband, and this was one of them. He did not say the obvious. The evening had been a disaster, it was actually impossible to express either gratitude or praise.
"Hello," said the voice at the other end.
"Oh, Mamun, Wali and I wanted to tell you we really enjoyed the wonderful meal we had with you yesterday."
"Wonderful meal"? Could there be impudence greater than this?
"Yes, we enjoyed it too. Oh, just a minute, your Mumani wants to say something to you."
"Fizza, I had the feeling that Wali was not feeling quite himself last evening. Is he all right?"
"Yes, of course, Mumani. What made you think he was unwell?"
"Well, the very small amounts he ordered for himself," I couldn't plainly say 'for us' – "were not what he usually consumes."
"Most likely he felt a little shy about asking for larger amounts than what you had ordered. But it's all right, really. He says he greatly enjoyed your hospitality, anyway."
"Our hospitality? What do you mean? It was you who hosted the outing."
"Oh, no, Mumani! Mamun Hafeez had threatened us that if we did not allow you both to finance the meal this time, you would not go out with us again! That was the reason Wali finally allowed you to stand the outing."
Suddenly, the sentence drifted back into my memory. Yes, I had heard my husband very clearly giving the ultimatum.
And I could not remember his retracting it. Nor could I remember, try as I might, myself saying something to the contrary after that.
All I could remember was that, earlier I had kept insisting over and over again that we would be the hosts this time – and I had really meant it – while Fizza and Wali kept talking me down every time. I had been positive it was I who had had the last word, and I had told my husband so.
So that was it. We had been the hosts of the evening. And we were the indescribably miserly ones.
Horrifying recollections rose to my consciousness. "Oh, simple kebabs will do. No, we can do without parathas. Boiled rice and daal. One kulfi each, perhaps. There's no need for drinks."
In stories they wish the earth would open and swallow up the humiliated one. That is what I wished, except that the internment would hardly explain or excuse our shameful stinginess, which they would never understand was all in consequence of a mix-up.
"What happened, Ayesha Mumani?" Fizza's voice expressed concern at my abrupt and complete silence. "Are you all right? It seems the line has gone dead."
No, the line had not gone dead. It was I who was about dead – with unbearable mortification.