How we stay together: 'If a problem came up, it had to be solved straight away'

Alexandra Spring

Names: Marcia and John Church
Years together: 44
Occupations: Retired

Marcia Church is terrified of coronavirus. The 63-year-old and her 70-year-old husband John live in Tuncurry. A few years ago, the retired couple settled in the idyllic spot on the New South Wales north coast after selling their Sydney home and closing their trucking company after 37 years of hard work.

She has an underlying condition that has seen her lungs collapse a few times over the years, while John has just finished 13 months of immunotherapy for melanoma. After reading news stories of Italian doctors being forced to choose which patients to treat, she’s worried about their chances.

The other day, she shared her fears with her young grandson, who could sense she was upset. “And I said, ‘I can understand them saving the younger person.’ I said, ‘But I’d still like a chance too.’ He got it straight away, and he said, ‘No, they won’t do it, Granny.’ He said, ‘I won’t let them.’”

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It’s been a harrowing time for the couple. Just a few months ago, bushfires threatened their home, which is not far from bushland. Marcia remembers packing and unpacking things three times as the emergency warnings came and then abated. She only really panicked when she realised her unflappably laidback husband was concerned. “That was the very first time I’ve ever seen him worried. He didn’t actually say he was worried, not to me. To me, he was always upbeat and, ‘We’ll be right’ ... But then I overheard him telling a friend that rang up, ‘Mate, I’m pretty scared, actually, I’m pretty worried. It’s looking pretty bad up here.’”

One night, as the fires drew close, the couple took turns resting for an hour at a time. Marcia remembers lying there worrying their time was up: “[I remember thinking] ‘We’ve been together all this time, we’ve waited all this time to have a bit of a life together’ ... And I thought, ‘Is this, now, how it’s all going to end? We’re just going to be burned to death?’”

Fortunately they came through the bushfires unscathed. But now they’re doing their best to get through the coronavirus crisis, staying indoors away from everyone as much as possible.

They’ve already gotten used to being around each other 24/7. “We’re not on top of each other,” says John. “Our house is a reasonable size, so we don’t have to be sitting there if we’re disagreeing with what show we’re watching. I can just go to another room and watch my show, and Marcia will watch her show.”

During their 44 years together, these two have been through countless ups and downs – and they’re still bantering through it.

They met on January 26 in 1976 at Tralee Speedway in Canberra. Marcia was almost 19 and had never been to the car races before, while John was 26 and a hotshot Speedway driver.

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Marcia and her friend got talking to Daryl, one of John’s pit crew and his best friend. That night after the races, the foursome met up. There was an almost instant connection between John and Marcia. He thought she was very nice and “very pretty”. He remembers she had her waist-long hair tucked up into a blue cap. “I’m impressed he remembers,” Marcia says drily.

They saw each other again the following day, with Marcia introducing him to her family. But after that it was a long-distance relationship, with John based in Sydney and Marcia in Canberra. There were plenty of long phone calls and letters exchanged. So what was in the letters? “The normal rubbish that you carry on with trying to impress the girl,” says John.

They got engaged quickly and were married seven months after meeting. “We were over the long-distance thing and we knew we were going to be together,” says John. “So better just to get married and move in together and be done with it.”

But it meant that Marcia had to give up her promising finance job in Canberra and move to Sydney. There was another complication: John had been married before and had the lion’s share of the custody of his two children. He was a truck driver and constantly on the road, so Marcia had to look after the children. It wasn’t an easy time. “I thought it was going to be like the Brady Bunch,” she says. “I was fairly naive. And I soon came down to reality.”

Two years after they were married, they had a daughter. John knew it was tough on Marcia: “She was taking care of all that, bringing up the kids and the schooling and everything and it was new to her. So she did the best she could, and done a pretty good job of it.”

But the two retained a strong connection. “Ordinarily he’s the one who grounds me, and if I’m too upset, he makes me laugh,” says Marcia. John is rarely ruffled: “Nothing really worries me. I just take each day as it comes and whatever happens, happens.”

They’re straightforward with each other and opposites in many ways, so they don’t mind a hearty debate. “He does his thing, I do mine. But we yell a lot, because I’m very vocal in my opinions to do with government and politics, and he’s pretty vocal.” It usually winds up with John walking away. Marcia doesn’t always appreciate that, but things simmer down. “I just storm around and play slamming doors and all this sort of stuff ’till I calm down. Then he’ll walk back in two hours later and say, ‘How you going, darl?’.”

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Their different skill sets came in handy when they ran the trucking company together. They built it into a thriving business with contracts with large freighting companies and employees in Sydney and Melbourne. They worked well together. “I said to him, ‘Well, I’m pretty good at finances. You’re pretty good at trucks and organising people, getting the maximum number of trucks and getting it up to the destination on time,’” says Marcia. “So you do your bit, I’ll do my bit, and you just keep out of what I’m doing and same. So that worked for about five minutes.”

They had a good cop, bad cop routine going, remembers John: “I let people get away with overdue accounts and stuff like that, whereas Marcia wouldn’t. She’d put the foot down and say, ‘Yeah, your 30 days is up. Pay your bill.’”

Work inevitably spilled into their home life, with both of them working six days a week, all year round. There was plenty of the pressure on the relationship. “We were like ships that crossed in the night for a lot of years,” says Marcia. Although there were lots of arguments, they didn’t have time for any real disagreements, says John. “If a problem came up, it had to be solved straight away. So we talked about that and came to an agreement [about] what we would do about it.”

Neither are good at showing weakness or asking for help. Even when Marcia was very ill with her lung condition, John didn’t take it too seriously – something she doesn’t let him live down. But there’s a sense that he would be lost if anything serious did happen. “I dread the day if she does get really sick,” he finally admits, before joking: “I’d drive you to the hospital. Let someone else look after you.”

She would also worry about him endlessly when he was driving trucks. “Inevitably, every single trip he’s come home and tell me some sort of horror story ... that made it 50 times worse. So it was stressful.”

Eventually he decided to close up the business. It wasn’t Marcia’s decision but reluctantly she agreed. They sold their Sydney home and move to Tuncurry. These days they’re settled in their own routines, together and doing their own thing. “I enjoy my life [“You would,” retorts Marcia] and enjoy the company I’ve got ... I’m very happy with what we’ve had and hope there’s a few more years left to go.”

They rarely discuss their relationship much: “We’re too busy talking about aches and pains,” says Marcia. John says: “We just take it for granted that we’re together and we’re stuck together, so [we] learn to live with it.”

They still tease each other mercilessly. “We always have a shot at each other about how you’re doing this and you should be doing it a different way,” says John. Not everyone would understand their jokes, particularly their colourful names for each other. “If anyone else walked in, they’d look.” And I’d say, “It’s all right, we’re just mucking around.” So they’d still look. “No, no, seriously. That’s how we talk to each other.”

“I think laughter [is important],” says Marcia. “Finding someone that shares that weird sense of humour that you might have.”

John agrees: “Everyone has their disagreements, but I would say: don’t carry a grudge. I always say there’s two sides to every story. No matter how bad the story is, there’s still another side of it.”

“It’s seriously so annoying. He’s so Mr Nice Guy,” Marcia jokes. But for a moment, she’s serious, describing John as fair and trustworthy: “He’s a very good guy. He’s got some irritating faults, like I have, but on the whole, I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else.”

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