I was told this last year in a pub. I don't know if it's true. But it's haunted me, and the only thing to do with a haunting story is to pass it on to haunt someone else: the Ancient Mariner syndrome.
The teller was a skinny-handed, middle-aged bloke whose name I don't think I learned. I've not seen him since. I'll call him Bill.
Bill went to visit a friend in Christchurch Hospital. The cancer ward was so deep inside the building, so many lifts and corridors deep, that Bill doubted anyone could ever escape it.
He went with all the usuals, the fruit and chocolate, a light and cheerful novel. How hard it is to buy for the sick. The only thing they want is not for sale.
When Bill arrived his friend was asleep. The nurse said it was the drugs and there was no telling when he might come round. Should she wake him? Bill said not to bother. Sleep was important.
In truth, Bill said, he was relieved. Like many men he wasn't fond of hospitals or good at visiting. It was easier to sit a while and leave his gifts beside the bed as evidence of good intentions and sneak away as soon as didn't seem indecent. (It was such details as these that tended to convince me of the story's truth. But I don't want to prejudice you.)
"You watching the cricket?"
The voice was weak and raspy and came from the next bed where a man lay shrivelled, eaten away by illness. He didn't look as if he'd long to go. Above his bed a small television was tuned to a Test match between England and New Zealand. The game was taking place at Hagley Oval, literally across the road from the hospital.
"Yes," said Bill, "I am," by which he meant that he was following the progress of game.
"Will you do me a favour?"
"Of course," said Bill. What else could he have said?
"Will you find …." and here the old man named a well-known British entertainer, "He's at the game. They showed him on the telly. He loves his cricket. Buy him a beer from me, will you? He's given me so much pleasure."
Bill had had no intention of going to the match. But he could hardly back out now. And besides there was something intriguing about the mission.
"There's $20 in the drawer there," said the man. Bill took it.
He paid to enter the ground with his own money. The crowd was Test match thin. He suspected the entertainer would be in the pavilion but he went the long way round the ground, scanning the crowd. From a concession tent near the pavilion he bought a beer. It cost $10 and came in a thin plastic cup. It slopped over his hand as he walked so he drank some.
Security blocked his way, wanted to see his pavilion pass. Bill had no pass, of course.
"It's like this," began Bill, but then gave up. This huge man with the ear-piece would have heard every story under the good sun. Bill leant on the gate and scanned the crowd on the pavilion seats. And there was the entertainer, wearing a sun-hat and sunglasses, but still somehow unmistakable.
Feeling like a fool Bill waved to him, waved to him eagerly. When the entertainer glanced his way, Bill smiled and put his hands together as if in prayer and entreated the man with his eyes. To his astonishment the man got up and came to the gate.
"Look," said Bill, "I'm sorry to bother you but this bloke in hospital with cancer loves your work. He made me promise I'd buy you a beer." And Bill proffered the warmish, half-empty plastic beaker of beer. They both looked at it. And laughed.
"Tell him it was lovely," said the entertainer.
"Can you tell him?" said Bill, "on here, and sign it?" and he handed the man the $10 note that he'd received as change.
The entertainer smiled. "Thanks for the beer," he wrote on the note. Then he paused. "What's the guy's name?"
"I don't know," said Bill.
The entertainer laughed and added his signature.
Bill went back to the hospital feeling hugely pleased with himself. In the ward his friend had woken up. "Bill," he said, "Thanks for coming."
"No worries," said Bill. "How you doing?" But he was staring at the next bed. It was empty and stripped.
"What happened there?" he said.
"They took him away half an hour ago."
"Oh," said Bill. He put the $10 note in the drawer beside the bed.