By Jodi Bryant
When Geoff and Chris bumped into each other on the street in Portsmouth, it was one of those 'eyes across a smoky bar' moments. Over a decade later, and after navigating many obstacles along the way, they married in an intimate ceremony in Northland.
"We literally bumped into each other in the street in Portsmouth," remembers Geoff. "I suggested a coffee and we shared our histories. While drinking that coffee, we both realised how much we gelled and how much one's weakness was the other's strength. Our relationship since has always grown on this basis."
However, at the time, Geoff was married with a family and had 'always put up a barrier to his gayness'.
"I knew I was gay but had married and stayed faithful to the family I was in, whereas Chris was out gay all his life. The relationship was only platonic at this stage."
Meanwhile, Chris had just been accepted for New Zealand residency when they met and, after selling his house and resigning from his job, he left the UK with the mindset that either 'absence would make the heart grow fonder' or 'out of sight, out of mind'. The former proved to be the case.
Tragically, Geoff's wife was suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, which took her life just ten weeks later and Geoff decided to travel to New Zealand to seek respite from the trauma. The two took a campervan tour around Northland and, it was during this time, they fell in love.
Geoff subsequently moved to New Zealand in 2005 where they lived together, marrying ten years later.
"We never really did the engagement and 'popped the question' thing," Chris, 58, recalls. "From numerous discussions, we both knew how the other was thinking. We always knew we would get married when the law so allowed so when the law was passed, we simply turned to the calendar to work out the 'when'."
Because the couple both had family in the UK who they wanted to attend the wedding, they allowed a long period of planning. They also revolved around school holidays for the grandchildren and so a date of December 31 was set.
But first, they faced the daunting and highly-emotional admission to Geoff's family that he was gay. While Chris' family always knew he was gay and happily accepted Geoff, 69, into the family, Geoff's family were unaware.
"Because of his sudden move to New Zealand following the death of his wife, nobody was aware of his 'coming out'," explains Chris.
"In New Zealand, everyone who got to know him were immediately aware and fully accepting. The distance between UK and New Zealand made it easy to keep the UK in ignorance and gradually old friends became disconnected. There was a cover story but we both hated the lying, especially to the family, and more especially to Geoff's three sons."
So, for Geoff's first Christmas in New Zealand, the couple paid for his sons, then in their 20s, to travel to New Zealand to 'see Dad's new life'.
"Upon their arrival, we had to immediately sit them down and tell them the truth else it soon would have become obvious," Geoff recalls of the poignant time.
One of the twins realised something major was coming and sat and held his dad's hand while the news was delivered. The singleton sat quietly with a tear rolling down his cheek and the other twin got up and walked out into the raining night.
Says Chris sadly: "He sat in the middle of the drive with the rain pouring down and, after a short while, his dad said he would go out to him but the twin brother said: 'No, I'll go out and speak to him'. About 10 minutes later, they had not returned so Geoff went out to find the twins both sitting in the rain with an arm around each other's shoulder."
Geoff sat down with them - all three got soaked and, although this occasion is seared into his memory, Geoff can't recall what was actually said.
"The subject was not raised again. We all got on with the holiday and the boys got to know Chris a bit but, nearing the time for their return home, I knew the silence had to be broken."
Geoff subsequently took his sons on a trip to Rotorua and, while having dinner at a restaurant, said: 'You must have a million questions to ask – now is the time'.
The questions flowed and Geoff admitted he had hated the lies and suggested he send an email to friends and family in the UK explaining his new situation to prevent the boys returning home to 'face the music'. However, his sons opted to maintain the lie, which continued for a further ten years, but for a few close relatives, who were accepting and supportive.
Then came a situation whereby it was impossible to avoid telling Geoff's sister-in-law. She immediately cut all ties with Geoff, while still communicating with his sons and their own now growing families. Everyone now knows about Geoff's relationship and reacted positively.
"I have five grandchildren and, yes, the distance between us does tug at the heart strings but, on balance, life in New Zealand is such that a return to UK is not anticipated."
Geoff says that, while it is believed his sons aren't 'madly happy' about the situation, they do recognise that their dad is happy, cared for and enjoying his life so are prepared to accept the status quo.
All communications with the boys and their partners and visits to family homes have been achieved with good grace, manners and humour, says Geoff, and that included their wedding day.
The obvious venue was from their award-winning Kerikeri countryside retreat bed and breakfast they have jointly run since 2006, which boasts large, scenic grounds and with all floral arrangements from their gardens.
"We did set a colour theme for guests of pink and blue but asked for this to be semi-smart only," describes Geoff. "However, the wedding party was in black and white and silver."
The wedding party included two groomsmaids (local girlfriends), two best ladies (their younger sisters), two ring boys (Geoff's grandchildren) and two witnesses (Geoff and Chris' older brothers).
The wedding was in three parts; The main non-religious ceremony held under a large marquee attended by 140 guests in the late morning, the wedding meal in the courtyard garden, which was catered by outside caterers using the couple's kitchen and attended by 52 guests. Finally, all guests returned
for a New Year's Eve party back in
Geoff reminisces: "It was a perfect beautiful sunny day, but the heavens opened almost on the stroke of midnight to bring the whole event to a soggy end!"
So how has married life been since?
"Frankly, no different to the 10 years running up to the wedding, except we have now got all the legal protection that marriage brings."
While Geoff's sons realise Chris isn't trying to be a 'step-mother', "We think it would be fair to say they don't adore him but have learned that he is no threat to them or their dad and are, therefore, happy to accept the situation.
"Having been blessed with a good strong family scenario and three wonderful sons then stepping straight into a perfect gay relationship allowing me to be who I really am, makes me the luckiest man," reflects Geoff. "I have lived the best of both worlds."
Geoff and Chris say they feel blessed to be a team for the rest of their lives and now with love and support from both their families.