I was walking through the thick crowd of mourners at a funeral when I saw on the other side of the road a man who looked uncomfortable wearing a suit. He was nodding in my direction.
The individual made his way through the throng, grabbed my arm and addressed me by name. I was at a disadvantage in that while I was sure I should know who he was, I didn’t immediately recognise him.
I stammered as I tried to cover my foolishness and embarrassment, but my face must have given the game away because the man immediately realised my predicament and seemed delighted by it. He began to laugh. It was the warmth of the mischievous smile which gave it away.
‘Brian’, I said. ‘Brian Hutton’.
That meeting of two journalists last October, was on an occasion of almost unbearable sadness. We were in Creeslough to cover the final funerals for the victims of the terrible explosion which had devastated the tiny Co Donegal village. However, even on that most sombre of days, meeting Brian was enough to bring a chink of warmth into my heart. We had not seen each other for the best part of two decades and quickly agreed to grab a coffee.
I first met Brian Hutton in the early years of this millennium when we were reporters at the Belfast Telegraph newspaper. I had been the youngest male journalist in the Belfast newsroom until Brian, a proud Londonderry man, arrived. Being of a similar age and unmarried, we began to socialise together. I remember that he didn’t know a lot of people in the city and we enjoyed a few evenings laughing over pints in the Duke of York bar.
Brian loved to go for long walks (a pursuit I was happy to join him in) as well as to swim in the sea (in which I was happy not to join him). He also loved to eat and I loved to cook, so I made dinner for him a few times. He seemed completely intrigued when he discovered that I baked my own bread and I remember one evening he watched captivated as I kneaded dough as if it was a practice of some mystical importance. When I made loaves, I would often bake an extra one and then wrap it in tinfoil for Brian.
The passing of time means that most of the details of the time I spent working or socialising with Brian Hutton have faded. What I do remember is the shared laughter and his insatiable desire to absorb all the details of a good story. He would listen intently when you told him a yarn or an anecdote, sucking in the details like they were oxygen.
He was also dedicated to his work. On one evening shift he was sent to cover a riot in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. He must have got too close because he ended up injured and was taken to the emergency department of a local hospital, becoming the subject of the story rather than the author.
I suppose over a period of about a year we became friends. If things had kept going in that direction, we may have become very close friends, but I sensed from early on Brian’s restlessness. He seemed to quickly outgrow Belfast and wanted a new challenge. After little more than a year working alongside me, he left the paper in search of different opportunities. We shared a last few pints before his departure and said all the usual things about staying in touch. I have no doubt that we both meant it.
Brian went to work as a reporter in Dublin. I saw his byline in countless newspapers covering major news events over the ensuing years. Perhaps as some sort of acknowledgement of the time we had spent together, I always took an extra few minutes to read a story when I knew he had written it.
And then, on that cold and windy day in Creeslough, he was again sitting across the table from me in a little café. It was far from ideal circumstances for blowing the dust off an old friendship. We were both undoubtedly affected by the surfeit of human suffering we were in the middle of, and both likely felt weighed down by the responsibility of having to file copy from the funerals. I know that I am not the best company when I have imminent work commitments which must be met.
But, despite it all, we chatted warmly for about half an hour. There were a few ‘d’ye remember the day when…’ tales exchanged. We tried to work out the amount of years it had been since we had last spoken and commented on how careless we had been in letting the acquaintance lapse. We talked about adventures in parenthood and how our lives had changed since becoming fathers. I sensed immediately how devoted he was to his young daughter.
I studied the now middle-aged man who sat across from me. The hair was slightly longer than I remembered. There was more weight around the neck and middle and lines at the edges of his features. However, the sense of mischief in the eyes was undiminished, the kindness and love of hearing the details of human experience remained. I felt better for seeing him.
We exchanged numbers before we parted and said that we would make a point of meeting again. I have no doubt that we both meant it.
It was just two months later, in the final hours of 2022, that I got a message informing me that Brian Hutton had died. I was with family to celebrate the end of the year. After I got the message, I retreated to a quiet room as I attempted to absorb the information. I shared the details with my wife and we both sat silently.
Perhaps there was a selfishness in the shock. I have known a few people who have died, but not from my own generation, not someone I had worked and shared so much common experience with. Brian was younger than me.
‘It’s too soon,’ I mumbled to my wife. ‘Far, far too soon.’
There was nothing else to say.