HMS Dolphin, 1803
I runs over to Liam, holdin' the funny box out to him. He don't look as if he's doin' much, which is good since I want to show him...this. I dunno if he's ever seen one before, but it's Liam, so he should know.
"What's that you've got there, Jacky?" I grins at him and takes out the little instrument I spent my last pennies on in port. Others thought I was goin' daft when I handed them over – bein' as they wanted to put all our money together to buy a monkey, which I didn't care much for, thank you very much. There's only one monkey on this ship, and she goes by the name of Jacky Faber.
"The man called it a...a..." I'm strugglin' to think of the word now. "Ukulele! That's it." Liam rolls his eyes, but picks it up by the varnished wooden neck and runs his hands all over it. "Will you teach me 'ow to play it? G'wan, pl-ease..." I'm doin' my best please mum voice and givin' him big eyes, and it seems to be workin'. Liam's weakening, I can tell. "D'you know what to do?" Liam nods.
"Aye. I do."
"Will you teach me then? Like you done the whistle?" But Liam don't answer me. Instead, he runs a finger 'cross all the strings and frowns when they make a kind of plunk, like they're half-dead. Don't sound much good. Not like the bloke what sold it to me – his hummed and danced and played somethin' beautiful.
"Didn't they tune it for you, Jacky?" I shakes me head. Don't even much know what he means when he says to tune it. Ain't a tune just a song, like? Mebbe he can see I ain't got a clue what he's goin' on about, because he sits up a bit and settles it in his lap, and it looks right funny in his big tarry hands. "Give us a G on your whistle and we'll go from there."
So I plays him the G, loud as I'm able to, and he listens and turns the little ivory peg at the end of the neck, pluckin' it and then twistin' the peg over an' over, 'til I'm right out o' puff. At last, he gets it so's the top string sounds the same as when I plays the note on my whistle. "That's got it. C now, Jacky." So I gives him C, and we go through the whole thing again, and then E and then A, and by now I'm thinkin' mebbe this ain't as easy as I though it were gonna be. But then Liam sits plays through the strings again, puttin' his fingers on different places at the neck, and it sounds right good, just like the man in the street.
"Sit down here," he says, and I sits down in front of him like when he was teachin' me to play whistle and wanted to show me where to put my fingers to make the different notes. "Put your finger on this fret."
"Wassa fret?" Only cause I dunno. Fret's what you do when you're havin' a tizzy, isn't it?"
"See these lines across the neck, Jacky?" I nod. "Those're frets. You put your finger between them to get the notes."
"Awright..." Seems right complicated, this. I think Liam sees that I'm havin' trouble gettin' it, since he ruffles my hair like he always does when he's in a fatherly mood wi' me.
"It's not that bad really. Put your finger on the A string – that's the one furthest away – and the third fret along." I counts and puts down one o' the fingers on my left hand. Can't put down my right hand, as it's occupied tryin' to hold the ukulele up next to me.
"That's it. Now try strumming all the strings at once, using your right hand." I dunno if it's physically possible the way I'm holdin' the thing, but Liam just laughs and moves my arm. "Now try." I does, and it sounds right good, even if I do say so myself. "That's a C chord, Jacky."
"Like when I play on the accordion." Oh, right. I knows what those sound like – Liam said he'd teach me squeezebox when I'm good enough at flute.
"What – so you play 'em when other people play the tunes?"
"Yes, that's what chords do. Play C again." I takes a second to remember where to put my fingers, but then I gets it, and it sounds real good. "Now, this is how to play G..." Liam teaches me more – some are easy, like A and A minor, but some are right hard and my hand don't like goin' over the right frets. But Liam don't have any sympathy when I whine. "You might have little hands, Jacky, but they're big enough to play the ukulele. Try again. It'll come soon enough." And it always does.
He teaches me lots of chords over the next few days, so's when they sing Drunken Sailor, I knows how to switch easy between D minor and C, and when the Scots sing Loch Lomond, I can whizz through C and A minor and D minor and G and F and C and D minor and G and A minor and G again, and you can bet I'm right proud of meself when I does it for the first time in front of everybody.
Liam teaches me how to play melodies too, and where to put my fingers and which strings to pluck if I wanna play whole notes, or the little in-between notes you sometimes gotta put in to make a song sound right. But it can't play so many notes as the whistle can, so's if I wanna do Danny Boy or somethin', then I gotta go back to the flute – which I ain't been playin' so much since I got me the ukulele. But the strings sound right good for 'Macpherson's Farewell' or 'Blow the Man Down', so it don't matter too much.
Problem is, none o' the other lads seem to much like me pluckin'away 'stead of headin' to the foretop wi' them. Davy 'specially glares when I gets it out o' it's box, and the others all groan. So when I comes to get it out one day and I can't find it, I know straight who took it.
"DAVY!" I yells, clamberin' up into the riggin'. "COME DOWN 'ERE!" Bein' as he doesn't, I knows he's done somethin' wrong, and when I gets to the foretop, they're all o' them lookin' guilty. "What you done wi' my ukulele?" They looks at each other, and I knows this ain't gonna be good. "Whass goin' on?"
"Sorry, Jacky," says Jaimy, and at least he has the grace t'look ashamed.
"I ain't!" declares Davy, the sod.
"What you done?" And then I sees the string lyin' in Tink's hand, and I sees the faint smear of varnish on the mast, and I knows they've just smashed it up.
"Come on, Jacky..." But I ain't listening as I'm hurlin' myself back down to the deck, and there's tears in me eyes and I knows I'm actin' soft, but it ain't fair, and I didn't do no-one no harm, and it ain't fair, and I'm gonna kill that Davy, and –
When Liam sees me wi' red eyes that evenin', he don't ask nothin', and I'm right grateful for that. But what he does do is take out the accordion – the one I've wanted to play for so long but he's never let me. And he sits down and nods to his lap. I snuggles into place, and he puts his hands over mine.
"Now, Jacky," he says, and he puts his fingers over some o' the keys, and gives it a squeeze. "This is how you play the C chord..."
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