The Traditional Wedding by Jo Skehan



The invitation arrived by post in all its black and gold glory. Isla looked at it in bemusement turning it over for closer examination.

It was a wedding invitation for her late husband’s niece who was to marry in Penang, Malaysia in a traditional ceremony. Her mother was Malay so of course that part made sense, but the guy she was marrying was an Australian of Polish descent.

Isla smiled as she placed the ornate invitation near her key board. She would email her eldest sister for her input before making the decision of whether to go.

Later that day she wrote:

Hi Irene, Received an invitation to the wedding of Rosa’s and Jim’s daughter, Farah. Farah requests guests wear black or white in keeping with her desired colour theme. I can hear you saying ‘Why not go then?’ My reason for hesitating is because it’s to be a traditional Malay ceremony in Penang. What do you think? Isla.

That afternoon in front of TV enjoying a cup of tea, Isla heard the incoming email’s ping and hauled her seventy-five year old body out of the chair to see if it was the reply she was hoping for.

Hello Isla, The wedding sounds interesting. Excellent photo opportunity to beat all others! Penang would involve air travel, but you’ve done much air travel and you have a current passport (I suppose), so go and have fun! The weather here is heating up. I don’t do summer as well as I used to. Did you realise I celebrate (?) my eighty-fifth birthday soon? Where did those years go? Irene.

Isla had decided to go to Penang, and looked up flight details and costs. Her brother-in-law Jim, with whom she had kept contact after Paul’s death several years earlier, had recommended a good airline. Rosa’s sisters had arranged reasonable rates with the hotel where the wedding was to be held.  It sounded very simple and good fun.

A week later she emailed her sister:

Hi Irene, Flights and hotel are booked. It’s apparently a 3 -4 star which begs the question which is it really? I arrive two days before the wedding extravaganza and leave two days after. The celebrations last two days, total being six days. Plenty of time to renew my acquaintance with the lovely island of Penang. I’m going alone, unless you’d like to accompany me? Isla.

The reply was soon in her inbox:

Hello Isla, No thank you I have no desire to attend said extravaganza although I am sure it will be something to write home about. A chap is coming today to repair my storm damaged patio roof. This house is almost as old as I am so it is no surprise that it cannot withstand severe winds and rain any longer. Irene.

A month flew by with Isla repacking her bag several times and shopping for a suitable outfit for the ceremony. Many emails passed between the sisters. Irene’s contained useless information about the weather, her neighbours, her shopping and the homily at mass.

Finally it was departure day. Jim was in regular contact assuring Isla of the hotel bookings and hinting what clothing was preferred for the wedding. Isla decided to pack a few choices.

The flight was pleasant and refreshing indeed to be referred to as ‘Madam’ so respectfully. Arriving at Kuala Lumpur, Isla rushed to the domestic airport for the flight to Penang. The walk across the tarmac in the searing heat and humidity did little to encourage holiday mode, and one couple was almost run over by smiley Malays driving at break-neck speed on something resembling a ride-on mower.

By the time she landed in Penang, walked across another hot and noisy tarmac dodging fast moving vehicles, Isla was ready to sink into a comfy chair with a nice cold drink.

Little respite was offered by the poor air conditioning of the hotel foyer. Isla fervently hoped the rooms would be cooler as she fanned her sweaty face with her hat. Eventually, Isla was taken to her fifteenth floor room by a cheerful Bellboy whose big smiles and enthusiastic head nods made her feel very welcome.

She wrote an email to Irene after unpacking.

Hi Irene, Have arrived. It’s hot and steamy. My love for Penang is renewed. I’m excited at seeing my favourite places again. Jim left a note at reception saying to join them downstairs for a ‘steam boat’ dinner. Not thrilled with the prospect. Isla.

Before bed she wrote: Hi Irene, I’ll pass on steam boats from hereon in.  The meat was unidentifiable, vegetables tasteless. The wine tasted like vinegar. The humidity increased with the bowl of cloudy fluid boiling incessantly atop a gas flame. Air conditioning appears to be unheard of.   Look forward to sight-seeing and shopping tomorrow. Isla.

Wedding guests arrived in dribs and drabs. It was like old home week catching up with folks Isla hadn’t seen for years and it was lovely catching up on news and laughing about their advancing years.

Susan arrived alone having recently divorced her husband of fifty years. ‘Never too late hon,’ Susan had laughed heartily when telling Isla of her singledom.

Isla and Susan enjoyed a spot of sight-seeing, and lots of shopping especially at the night markets where it was huge fun bargaining for lower prices. Susan left that to Isla as she was a self proclaimed hopeless case when it came to bargaining.

Having spent most of the first two days out and about it was with shock and surprise when another guest, Jan informed them they were to wear traditional Malay outfits in black or white.

‘What?’ Isla was open mouthed at the news.

‘When did this happen?’ demanded Susan.

Jan, who seemed to be privy to inside information due to her ‘closeness’ to Rosa and her Malaysian family, was thrilled to outline the request and inform them a bus was booked for the next day to take them all to a traditional Malay clothing store in Georgetown.

Scowling, Isla and Susan retired to their respective rooms. As the elevator doors closed, Jan was still puffing importantly about the bus’ departure time and warning them not to be late.

Hi Irene, Guests must now wear black or white traditional gear. I can’t see why my black pants and top with the pretty white flower down one side is not acceptable. Have you seen what they wear up here? I pity the women as the outfits look extremely hot. Wish me luck. Isla.

Irene offered no sympathy in her reply:

Hello Isla, Bad luck about the outfit. Is this the bride’s request or her mother’s? More storms here. My kitchen ceiling caved in with roof leaks, hence no power all day. Irene.

The group shopping trip was hot and hurried. Jasmine, Rosa’s sister acted as translator.  She knew just enough English to get by, making the entire exercise wearing on everyone, including shop assistants who stood quietly in corners watching, as the guests searched the racks frantically.

Five hours later everyone had an outfit. The men laughed and joked about their silk pyjamas and waist sarongs, topped off with a songkok – an oval hat. The women chose from long sleeved heavy dresses, adorned with sparkling beads. The more ‘bling’ the better advised Jasmine. Isla being tall had difficulty in finding a dress long enough. The larger sizes were too big across her slim shoulders making the sleeves hang lower on the shoulder than they should.

In frustration, Isla threw a large tent like dress on the counter and paid for it in disgust. Jasmine then led them to the jewellery section instructing them to buy many bracelets, earrings and necklaces with shiny stones. The more ‘bling’ the better as she had already said.

‘My dress has a bit of red on it, so I hope it’s ok,’ Susan said worriedly.

‘Mine is a black potato sack covered in ‘bling’, and I detest it already!’ Isla grumbled. ‘But it’s what the bridal family want. I’ll make sure I’m not in any photos!’

The first day of celebrations involved the guests being dined and fruit juiced to within an inch of their lives while the bridal couple had their rehearsal and last instructions of procedures from the wedding planner. Dancers and performers rehearsed also and no guest was allowed anywhere near the function room.

Crawling into bed feeling stuffed like a fois gras duck in France, Isla pulled her laptop slowly toward her hoping to see a newsy email from her sister.

Hiya Mum thought I’d check in and make sure you’re having fun but not running off with any foreign guys!! The kids are fine and busy, I’ve been flat out at work. Has the wedding happened yet? Look forward to photos. Love you mum, Susannah.

Isla was delighted her daughter had emailed. Her sister had emailed also.

Hello Isla, I suppose the wedding is in full swing. Enjoy. Have quotes for ceiling repairs and am rather sick of tarpaulins flapping about above my head as I cook. The sooner it’s fixed the better. Irene.

The next afternoon the guests lined up outside the function room, splendid in their traditional outfits. The men fiddled with their sarongs and the women turned the ‘bling’ bracelets round their wrists or twiddled long sparkling earrings. Isla noticed she was not alone in feeling hot and bothered. Most of their makeup was sliding off their faces.

After what felt like hours, the guests were given table numbers and permitted to enter the room and served icy fruit juices.

Loud Asian music filled the room and some guests frowned at the ceiling trying to locate the speakers. It was harsh on the ears and Susan remarked that in spite of serving no alcohol, headaches would be suffered tomorrow due to the loud ear bashing music.

Dancers preceded the beautiful bridal couple as they walked to the stage where two huge white thrones stood surrounded with lace, flowers, gold ornaments and trimmings. Two magnificent ice sculptures were at either side of the stage. Isla marvelled they were not melting.

Many hours later, Isla collapsed in bed and turned her laptop on.

Hi Irene, The wedding was so over the top it stunned us all! The ornate decoration was amazing and unmatched at any event I’ve attended. The ceremony was strange and I suspect made up as they went along. I couldn’t resist asking Rosa about etiquette of a traditional ceremony when people were ‘presented’ to the bridal couple on stage –spices and water were sprinkled on the bride’s and groom’s hands– something to do with fertility I think but nobody including the Malays seemed to know. The four parents were presented first as you would expect, but the next couple was Jim’s boss and his wife! I was flabbergasted. Then Rosa’s sisters and husbands, fair enough of course, then Japanese guests who don’t even know the bridal couple! I had to ask, and next thing Rosa ran like crazy over to the wedding planner. I should have kept my mouth shut as shortly after, I was called up to be presented along with other family members of Jim’s. I doubt we would have got a look in otherwise though. It was an experience and so extraordinarily overdone and extravagant. Rosa’s love of materialism came to the fore at this event! I pray your kitchen ceiling is fixed. Isla.

Isla sank back onto the big pillows and sighed. This, she decided would be the last event or holiday for her with any of Paul’s family. It was time to let his family go just as she did when he had died. That hadn’t been too hard as Paul was a serial cheater during their long marriage, which survived only because Isla chose to ignore his unfaithfulness.

Two days later, Isla and Susan left Malaysia returning to their everyday lives in Australia. Hundreds of photos passed via email amongst the guests, and old friendships were renewed.

Isla sighed in her comfy chair and fired up the computer. Smiling she began an email to her sister. Hi Irene, I’m back.

She stopped, hit delete, picked up the phone and dialled.

‘Hello Irene, it’s me,’ Isla laughed into the phone.

Sometimes actual voice to voice conversations cannot be beaten.


One thought on “The Traditional Wedding by Jo Skehan

  1. Jane Risdon January 25, 2013 at 5:04 pm Reply

    I recall this lovely story from Telling Tales Anthology; loved it then as now.

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