2006 was a bad year for me – about as bad as a year could be. But I had begun a weird and wonderful job in the Middle East and by September was heading back to Amman for a couple of years. I’d been staying with a friend in Fitzroy, just up the road from our house, which had been rented for the duration. The day before I was to fly out, my friend threw a huge party and invited just about everyone I knew.
Helen arrived with a black baby-shaped case shoved in her backpack, and insisted we go upstairs to open it. We sat on the bed in my friend’s spare room where my bags were almost packed for the next day. Helen flicked the little case open with a flourish to reveal a glittering new ukulele with mother of pearl inlay, picks, spare strings, song books and You Can Teach Yourself Uke by William May.
I was expected to turn up with a uke to my weird posh job in Jordan?
To get me up and away Hel sat cross-legged on the bed and showed me some of her cool strumming secrets. She sang some bars of ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ or maybe it was ‘Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven’s Door’? All I remember is that we were shrieking with laughter.
I had learnt piano and recorder as a kid, my first husband had taught me to play a few pieces on his classical guitar, I’d even gone along to mandolin classes with my youngest son until he threw it in. I could read music or thought I could but in my fragile state, the chords and pick for the ukulele looked completely daunting.
Later that night, when the party was over and the house was quiet, I had a little pick at a chord or two, considered shoving the uke and William May’s best-selling teach yourself manual under the bed and sending Hel a postcard explaining that her present wouldn’t fit in my economy weight allowance. Then, since I was heading into winter, I left out some sandals and summer clothes and stuffed the uke in its case into my suitcase.
Every now and then, over the next few months, Hel would email me asking how I was doin’. And I’d tell her which song I was practising. I did try to teach myself – strumming along in the night on the deck of my fancy apartment in the palace compound hoping not to be overheard by the guards. I never progressed much beyond the first chords of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ which made me feel a bit maudlin and, anyway, hillbilly from the American south started sounding a bit off in the warm dark Jordanian nights with the war just a border away. But the day I really gave up was when I slid open a cupboard in the garden pavilion where I worked and found a complete set of videos of The Sopranos. The whole seven series. Eighty-six episodes. There was even a video player in my sitting room. I was gone.
The beautiful little uke with its mother-of–pearl inlay and all its trappings are still in Amman – at my friend, Rabeea Al Nasser’s wondrous House of Tales and Music – where Syrian and Palestinian kids from the camps are bussed in and Rabeea reads them books and gets them telling their stories. They get to play all kinds of instruments there and some of them are playing my uke for sure.
Unpublished UKELELE story for Bernadette Brennan, A Writing Life, Helen Garner and Her Work, Text 2017