Hello, Stranger Poems

An Incomplete Guide to Robert Rutherford by Pete Fortune

2 October 2021

A scoop for the Wigtown Book Festival here, the reappearance after a long absence from one of the area’s, no Scotland’s, finest short prose writers, Pete Fortune. Time was when Pete habitually frequented Scotland’s best literary magazines with his perceptive, witty and edgy short stories in both English and Scots. I think he last appeared in the Best of New Writing Scotland? Anyway, the good news is he’s back here, and the even better news is that now he’s retired from the day job, he’ll be producing new work!

Here he reads his brilliant signature piece, “An Incomplete Guide to Robert Rutherford” which won the Radio Clyde / Glasgow University short story competition in 1993, judged by Iain Crichton Smith.

An Incomplete Guide to Robert Rutherford

It’s nearly bedtime and the landline goes. “Hello,” I say, “this is 255101.”
It’s a woman on the other end. “Hello,” she says, “can I speak to Robert Rutherford, please?

I have to clear my throat. “I’m sorry, but you have a wrong number,” I tell her.
“Are you sure? This is the number I was given.”
“I’m sure. There is no Robert Rutherford here.”
“I’m sorry to have bothered you,” she says.

And off she goes. I put the phone back and go through to the living room. My wife is checking the place before we go to bed. “Who was it?” she asks. “Who was on the phone?”
“It was a wrong number,” I tell her. Then the landline goes again. “What do you bet?” I say.

“Hello, this is 255101.”
“Hello,” she says, “can I speak to Robert Rutherford, please?”
“You’ve done it again,” I say, then I laugh a little. “This is the wrong number you had just a minute ago.”
“You’re sure there is no Robert Rutherford there?” She sounds irritated.
“I’m sure,” I tell her, “if there was a Robert Rutherford here I would know. This is my house, and sometimes I forget things, but when it comes to who lives in my house, I’m usually on the ball. I can assure you, there is no Robert Rutherford lives in my house.”
“Oh dear, I am sorry. I hope you’re not too angry with me,” she says.
“I’m not angry,” I tell her. “It’s a mistake anybody could make. Don’t worry about it. It’s quite a name, by the way.”
“Sorry?” she says.
“Robert Rutherford. It’s a good name,” I tell her, “a good strong name to have, don’t you think?”
“Yes it is,” she says. “You sound like you could be a Robert Rutherford. Your voice I mean. You have a good strong voice, if you don’t mind my saying so. Nice and deep. You have the sort of voice I could imagine a Robert Rutherford having.”
“Do you think so? Thank you. Actually, I have the start of a cold,” I tell her, “and I smoke too much. I’m a little hoarse just now, so maybe that’s why you think I have a strong voice. I’m gruff, that’s all. If you don’t mind me saying so, you have a very pleasant voice yourself.”
“Oh, I think you’re just saying that,” she says. “You’re very kind, you know. A lot of people would be very annoyed at being disturbed in this way. I can think of lots of people who would be bawling and shouting by now. Swearing and slamming the phone down. But you’re being really nice about it. You’re being very tolerant. I could imagine a Robert Rutherford acting just the way you are.”
“Goodness me,” I say, “this is the nicest phone call I’ve had in a long time, and it wasn’t even meant for me.”
“Well,” she says, “the things I’m saying now are meant for you. You’re a kind man, and I’m just sorry to have bothered you the way I have.”

My wife is looking out of the living room door at me. She’s mouthing the words who is it? I’m shrugging my shoulders and waving my hand at her. I want her to go back into our living room, but she stays put.

“You still there?” the woman wants to know?”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, “there is no Robert Rutherford lives here. Someone must have given you the wrong number.”
Then I put the phone down. “That wrong number again. Some woman,” I tell my wife. “Some woman.”

My wife is rinsing cups in the kitchen and I stand beside her smoking a cigarette. She has washed my ashtray so I flick the ash into the sink.

“Don’t do that,” she says, “it’s a horrible habit. When are you going to stop? You’re always saying you’re going to stop.”

The landline goes again and this time my wife answers it. “I’m sorry,” I hear her saying, “there is no Robert Rutherford lives here. You are becoming a nuisance now, so please don’t ring again.” And she puts the phone down.
“There was no need,” I tell her, “not really.”
“Well,” she says, “three times. There is a limit."
“All the same,” I say, “these things happen. Come on, let’s go to bed.”

My wife tosses and turns, keeps punching at her pillow and sighing.
“I can’t get comfortable,” she says.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“There’s nothing wrong,” she replies, “I just can’t get comfortable.”
But I can. I snuggle right down and drift off to sleep.

It’s some time in the middle of the night and I’m sitting bolt upright in bed. “What? What is it?”
The landline is ringing. My wife has it. “Hello,” she says, “hello?”
“Good God,” she’s saying, “are you off your head? Phoning at this time of the day – the middle of the night? I can’t believe this. Go to hell will you?”
Then she slams the phone down.

“Rutherford,” she says to me, “can you believe that? Rutherford?”
“Unbelievable,” I say to her. “Leave it off the hook, leave it off till morning.”
“What a way to waken up,” she says. “God almighty. Who is this Robert Rutherford when he’s at home anyway?”
“Who knows?” I say. Now I can’t get comfortable. I can’t relax. “Like a film star,” I tell her.
“Like a film star,” I repeat. “Robert Rutherford reminds me of a film star or something. Who am I thinking of?”
“Redford,” she says. “You’re thinking of Robert Redford. Remember him? Now Robert Redford, he’d have been worth chasing after in the middle of the night. I bet this Rutherford character isn’t.”
“Steady on,” I tell her, “you’ll be making me jealous here. Besides, he must be ancient now. An old, old man surely, if not dead?”
“I don’t know,” she says, “I lose track. He could be by now, for all I know.”
“I can’t get comfortable,” I tell her.
“Try,” she says. “Try to get back to sleep or you’ll never get up for work in the morning.”
“I’ll try,” I tell her.

We sleep in and rush around the place like headless chickens.
“Rutherford,” my wife says, “I blame Rutherford.”
I manage a quick coffee and then I’m out the door and into the car.
“Have a good day at work,” she calls after me.

At work I’m opening the mail and checking my laptop, tearing open envelopes and deleting emails, and trying to ignore the landline in my office. It’s only 8.30. We don’t open to customers until 9 o’clock and that includes the phone. How else would I get the mail organised?
The phone keeps ringing and stopping, ringing and stopping. It’s getting on my nerves. It rings again and this time I answer it.

“Hello, can I help you?”
“Hello,” she says, “can I speak to Robert Rutherford please?”
“This is Robert Rutherford speaking,” I tell her. “What can I do for you?”

The series is curated by Hugh McMillan, poet and writer, Ambassador for the Scottish Poetry Library in 2020 and Editor of its anthology ‘Best Scottish Poems’ for 2021.