The year was 1970 and Matthew returned to Butterworth, Malaysia where he was stationed with the RAAF, after having six weeks holiday in his home town in Victoria.
The visit home was pleasant enough, catching up with old school mates and enjoying adult type conversations for the first time ever with his grown and married brothers. He was the youngest by fifteen years – a change of life baby some said – and finding anything he held in common with his much older brothers was always difficult.
On arrival he walked through the canteen to join a group from his squadron.
‘Hey there, Matt. Welcome back!’ John Rowe his best mate was delighted to see him and shook his hand enthusiastically.
‘We’re all going to Georgetown tonight, are you coming too?’ One of the others in the squadron asked. Alan Benson adjusted his glasses as if to get a better look at Matt when he answered.
‘You bet! I want to catch up with the girl I met before I went on leave,’ Matt grinned.
The girl Matthew referred to was a young seventeen year old Malay girl working in the bistro bar that was a favourite haunt of the Air Force guys. She was shy and rather pretty with paler skin than most Malay girls, and being able to speak English well was a bonus.
At the bistro bar, the group made its way to their preferred table, one of a few big enough to seat them all comfortably.
The young Malay girl walked shyly over to the table to take their orders, especially smiling at Matt. Words were unnecessary as their eyes said what they both felt. Matt felt warm and happy for the first time since he left for his home country on leave.
Later that night while the men were laughing loudly at each other’s jokes, Matt slipped away for a quick word with the pretty girl. He asked her name and she whispered it was Mari.
‘Mari and Matt,’ he mused. ‘Has a nice ring to it don’t you think?’
Mari smiled and looked at the floor in embarrassment and then giggled with delight.
They spent an hour together at the end of Mari’s shift drinking iced tea and chatting about their lives, jobs and dreams for the future. Mari was very forthcoming with details of her desire to marry and have children and to possibly move away from Georgetown and Penang where her large family of brothers and sisters all lived. She wanted a better life.
Her father, a police officer was a very strict Muslim who insisted his daughters abide by his and the religion’s rules so they could marry a good Muslim man on reaching the age of twenty. He regarded that age as perfect for marriage.
Mari’s mother was a hardworking cleaner and excellent cook. She worked as a domestic at the hospital by day and at night she cooked Malaysian curries and pastries for an upmarket restaurant in Georgetown. The restaurant was a favourite of tourists who paid complements and large tips for the excellent dishes they enjoyed. At the end of every long night, Jalim returned to her home and family of nine, exhausted but filled with pride.
Over the following months Matt and Mari managed a few stolen hours together after her shift at the bistro. She was not allowed out with any man by her parents and risked severe punishment if found out in her liaison with Matt. Being with a foreigner was regarded by Yousef and Jalim as the worst sin for any Malay girl to commit and ten times worse should their daughters dare to sink so low.
Matt regarded the rules as being quite unreasonable and intolerable.
He would object when she refused to spend a whole day with him at the beach. The squadron was keen on water skiing and often planned a day out together. The married men and their families lived in houses in Penang provided by the Air Force and they enjoyed spending time as one huge family.
Time passed with Mari sneaking out to spend more and more forbidden time with the young man she now loved. Matt too was becoming enamoured and longed for the freedom to be seen in public with Mari, to meet her family and to arrange to meet his family in Australia.
One evening Matt took Mari to a classy restaurant after her usual shift. She had a change of clothes with her and he was impressed by how stunning she looked in her pale blue strapless dress. She twirled round in front of him giggling happily. He caught her in his arms and kissed her. They both knew in that moment they wanted to take their relationship a step further and were prepared to risk the consequences.
Murphy’s Law was on duty that night, as Mari’s father drove past the restaurant just as Mari and Matt stepped onto the pavement. He screeched the police car to a halt and jumped out effortlessly. Snarling in Malay to Matt, he gripped Mari’s arm tightly causing her to cry out in pain, and pushed her into the patrol car. Matt tried to grab Mari but her father hit him across the face with the back of his very strong arm, knocking Matt off balance. He fell hard to the ground where Yousef then kicked him in the ribs angrily and shouted, ‘My daughter, you stay away, I will kill!’
Mari was not at work the following night. Matt asked the bar owner where she was but he just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
‘Don’t worry mate, we’ll find her,’ John promised solemnly.
In spite of asking around and riding his motor bike during the following weeks through the streets of the island of Penang, Matt saw no sign of his lovely Mari and his heart ached.
Months passed in which Matt spent most of that time with a fuddled love sick brain. His officers in charge had occasion to discipline him a few times warning he had better shape up or be shipped out to the Amberley Base in Queensland. He needed to stay where Mari was, so Matt wisely heeded the advice.
At last Mari returned to the bistro, but only to collect money owing to her. Her father waited outside in the patrol car. Matt rushed to her taking her in his arms. Momentarily she melted into his embrace but stiffened as she remembered her father outside. She told Matt she had been beaten and was now locked in her bedroom most of the time and kept virtually a prisoner watched by her sisters constantly while her mother worked. She was forbidden to see him again. Matt was horrified. He urged her to run away with him promising she would always be safe. He tried to explain that keeping her prisoner was unacceptable and in his country would be considered an offence punishable by law. Their time together was very limited and while feeling panic at not seeing her ever again, Matt searched his brain for a solution.
He whispered to her and she nodded her head and spoke excitedly in Malay.
‘Hang on, hang on,’ he laughed, ‘speak English.’
Mari stopped, took a deep breath and said ‘I will meet you tomorrow morning at the markets. I will be at the far end of the street waiting for you. My sisters will be busy buying the food for our meals.’
Matt’s heart quickened next day when he saw her standing bare-footed at the end of the market street. Mari stepped back into the shadows of the stall pulling Matt with her. He told of his plan to get her away so they could be together forever. He promised to take her to Australia with him when his Malaysian posting was done. Excited and full of hope for their future, Mari agreed to do as he asked.
Matt’s friend John rode his motorbike quietly up the street and stopped nearby Mari’s house. It was night but the street lighting made it very difficult not to be seen. Mari ran out into the street clutching a small cloth bag holding a few clothes. John rode off quietly and headed for the house of one of the married guys where Matt waited.
The young couple was thrilled at how cleverly they had outwitted Mari’s father. They would work out the next step in time, but for now the wife of his RAAF mate was happy to take care of Mari and keep her hidden.
They had underestimated Yousef’s chain of contacts and were taken completely by surprise when police officers detained Matt on his way to the house a few nights later. Arrested on suspicion of illegally dealing with a minor, Matt was soon locked in a cell. Yousef smiled, sure Matt would crack and leave the country.
Matt was allowed to phone his superior officer at the base, who in turn rang Matt’s family in Australia. Two days later, Matt’s brothers appeared at police headquarters with a lawyer. Much discussion took place in both Malay and English and his brothers paid the set bail.
Kenyon, Matt’s eldest brother returned to the Police Headquarters to talk to Yousef, in the attempt of coming to a mutually agreeable solution for the star crossed lovers. Matt assured Kenyon his love for Mari was sincere and he wished to marry her and take her back to his home country at the end of his posting at Butterworth.
Kenyon and Yousef respected each other and after a long chat it was decided Matt and Mari would be permitted to marry as long as he converted to the Muslim faith. They would be married in the honourable Muslim tradition.
When informed of the agreement, Mari looked worried and cried. Matt hugged her and told her, his brothers and friends that he would walk over hot coals if he had to, as he loved her more than anything.
The arrangements were finalised by Yousef, his wife and Kenyon for the wedding plans and preparations were carried out by the family. Matt studied the Muslim religion at the nearest Mosque before declaring the Shahadah and to pray to Allah. For a born and bred Roman Catholic, it all seemed daunting and final, but Matt was happy to do this for his Mari.
They married in a traditional Malay ceremony attended by his friends at the Butterworth RAAF base, his brothers and hundreds of relatives and friends of Mari’s family.
Once married, Matt had the right to apply for a serviceman’s house on the island of Penang, and soon after their marriage ceremony they moved into a little two bedroom house in the hills. It was too far for Mari’s sisters to visit often which suited her fine. She was now happily learning English and the Australian ways from the other wives who lived nearby. The excitement of moving to Matt’s home country was overwhelming at times and she would stop and take a deep breath when panic threatened to darken her day.
Thirty five years later, Matt and Mari celebrated their wedding anniversary with joy, surrounded by their four children. Some of her family had travelled to Australia especially, and the many friends and family she had gained over the years since arriving as an innocent, wide-eyed foreign wife were also happy to attend. Neither Matt nor Mari regretted the risks they had taken in defying Mari’s father, now deceased, all those years ago. Their life in Australia had been a happy one and the marriage which had been pronounced as doomed all those years ago, was a joyfully successful union.
Matt looked around at all the guests and smiled. He put his arm around his wife’s waist and drew her close, and raising his glass he made a toast for the next thirty-five years.