George was an engineer, a man of science, and he was my husband. He had been brought up by strict Presbyterian parents, his father a lay preacher, but the home wasn’t a place of acceptance and love, far from it. His family was all about appearances, doing well, and achieving some standing in the community. He was a kind man, but stoic, taking the ‘strong silent type’ concept very seriously, which is probably why I fell for him initially – I too had grown up in a world that valued men of steel, men who would never weep, or bend. My dad was a Sergeant Major, and even when his wife and then his two sons died, he showed no emotion. I thought that was how men should be.
So George met all my criteria – intelligent, smart, capable, steady. Handsome (it helps). Athletic. He was witty and quick thinking, and he could reduce me to helpless laughter with a quiet observation, or a silly quip. He was great company. But we both had one failed marriage behind us, and we carried the faults of those first marriages into our second. I was too young for him, too impractical, and far too impulsive and selfish. He loved rowing and running, judo and archery. I loved books. We fancied each other like mad, we told ourselves that this was love, and we plunged in, regardless. It’s no wonder that the brand new marriage was falling apart just a couple of years later and so – ludicrous decision!- we moved to South Africa, because that was going to sort it, wasn’t it? Looking back …. what twits!
After his childhood, cold father and dreadful Sundays (church three times and no amusement allowed) George had no time for church, for personal religion and he didn’t believe in God. I believed there was a God, I even believed that Jesus was God, but I didn’t think much of him, I thought he was arbitrary and capricious and I could do without him. Why on earth didn’t we pause and look at our lives and ask “How’s that working out so far?”
You know that terrifying winter sport, the Skeleton? As we flew out to South Africa that was us, hurtling down the hillside, eyes closed, holding on to each other for grim death.
In Johannesburg George was a project engineer constructing sugar refineries. It was a high-pressure but fulfilling life for him and hellishly boring for me, stuck at home in Bezuidenhout Valley knowing no one. Within a year he had been head-hunted so we uprooted and moved to Durban to improve his prospects. More stress for him, more boredom for me, in a shabby bungalow with a three year old child and nothing much to do (reminds me of lockdown!). When you live with someone you see their vulnerabilities as well as their defences and while, to the rest of the world, he appeared confident and high-achieving, he was plagued by stress-related psoriasis and smoked constantly – from his first breath in the morning to his last gasp at night. Tough guy. I had married a good, old fashioned sturdy Glaswegian, someone I could (selfishly) lean on, but now I discovered that all was not as it seemed. The harsh truth is, I know now, that he was plagued with guilt and grief for his first family and he felt responsible for bringing me and our daughter half way across the world only to fail again. I was a huge disappointment to him, life out there was not what he had imagined, and so he immersed himself more and more in his work.
This blog isn’t about me so I won’t go into how I came to faith (at Durban North Baptist Church) but he was pretty disgusted and it made our shaky marriage even shakier. He tried to understand but couldn’t, and I was far from wise and gracious in my new found happiness and purpose! I know I was a real pain in the neck. My enthusiasm and happiness infuriated him. My determination to ‘make a go of it’ seemed childish, simplistic and arrogant. I’m sure I was all these things. Within weeks he said that this was never going to work, and he didn’t want this marriage any more, so as my only income was from a part-time job in a children’s nursery, he ‘suggested’ that I should return to the UK with our daughter. So I did.
A few weeks later, sitting all alone in a hotel room in downtown Durban, with his cigarette and a whisky nightcap, he looked back on his life and realised that he wanted more than this. That his Godless life wasn’t doing much for his heart and his soul. That none of it made sense. And he turned to God in anger and honesty, and he said that if God was there, if God existed, this was his last chance to make himself known. He said something like “If you exist and if you care, show me.”
I don’t know what else was in the prayer, in the anger and sadness and desperation. All I know is what he told me… that he went to sleep that night and when he woke up he was a new man. That’s how he put it, and that’s what I came to know for myself. When George woke up he knew that there is God, that God loved him, and he knew that he wanted to follow Jesus for ever. That day he called me, for the first time in weeks, and asked me to return to South Africa. When he told me that he had given his life to Jesus I was so stunned I said “Sorry, I don’t understand” three times – which is not the reception you want when your life is saved and rainbows are forming all around you, and the world is new and wonderful, and all the angels in heaven are blowing trumpets and throwing a shindig and dancing a jig.
And we all lived happily ever after? Not quite. There were struggles and mistakes and we had a lot of mending to do. But we did it with Jesus. We did it in obedience. George never softened to church but he was no longer the unbending man of steel. That night George was made new. Truly new. The man we flew back to was warm and tender, a man who could weep. He could forgive and repair. He was still my quiet man, still witty and quick thinking, and he could still reduce me to helpless laughter with a quiet observation, or a silly quip. Now his heart was lighter, and many of my most vivid memories are all about laughter, not stress; the time we had to walk around the block before going into our hotel because our laughter and snorting and nonsense would wake everyone up, and as we approached the entrance doors for the second time we erupted all over again and had to do the circuit again and again, getting more and more exasperated and helpless, and then there were all the times our daughter plaintively called from her bedroom “Stop laughing, you two, I’m trying to sleep”, and (less funny for me!) the time I fell in the brambles and both of them were laughing so hard they couldn’t pull me out. But for all that, his soul was quiet and prayerful. He was steady and measured and refused to argue (so infuriating!) and he was a peaceful partner. .
We had another nine years together. And we grew closer, and closer, and closer.
Here he is, the day before he died. It’s my favourite photo but I made the mistake of having it printed on a special backing, so it looks a bit like a canvas, doesn’t it? I made quite a few (and much bigger) mistakes in the months after the shock of his death. Ah, well. It’s still my favourite.
We were on holiday when the photo was taken, on a motor cruiser on the Caledonian Canal. I was two years into my new career as a script writer so life had been exciting and hectic, and we really needed this wind-down time. Our daughter was 14 and she had brought a friend along, Amanda. It really was an idyllic two weeks, slowly cruising across Scotland, all the way from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the north east. We day dreamed across the lochs, laughed and chivvied through the locks, drank wine on deck in wonderful sunsets, moaned a bit in the morning rain…. and George was in his element.
George had lived in England for most of his life, and he hadn’t expected to be moved by this Scottish holiday, but he was. He just loved the whole experience. Although he wasn’t a bird watcher, he had always wanted to see an eagle flying wild and the day before we left for home, a huge golden eagle soared above us, for all the world like a gift to George Marshall and no one else!
The next morning as we prepared to leave the boat, drinking our last cup of coffee before heading off, I took that precious photo, George, happy and relaxed, rested. And about to go to glory.
Now, if anyone is enfolded into Christ, he has become an entirely new creation. All that is related to the old order has vanished. Behold, everything is fresh and new. 2 Cor 5:17 (TPT)