Ern Ahearn and the Ah Loys' fantastic flying machine


A short story by Craig Cormick

The first Ern Ahearn heard of the planned flying machine was from his cousin Wal, one sunny Sunday afternoon on the verandah of the Ballarat Empire Club.

"What? A flying machine?", he said, between sips of a large pot of beer.

"So they reckon", said Wal.

"But what do the Ah Loys know about building such things?", asked Ern, half to Wal and half to himself.

"What indeed?", asked Wal back.

Ern mused and rubbed his stubbly chin. Orville and Wilbur Ah Loy were servants to the renowned Mrs James Fortesqueue — an elderly widow who had inherited the two men from her uncle, a stock speculator who had made his fortune on the goldfields.

The Ah Loys had been in the Fortesqueue family for many years, and had been handed down, like an invaluable kitchen appliance. They, like most orientals in the area, were a bit of a mystery, and therefore, like all mysteries, conceivably capable of anything.

Ern went home early that evening and dug out the plans of his own special project. Ern considered himself a bit of a man of technology and progress, owning the only automobile repair yard in Ballarat, and he had been working on a design of his own for several years — an underwater automobile, part car, part ship, that could travel on the bottom of a river.

"Lots of applications", he would often say, and after any dinner party, when too much wine had been drunk, and guests were thinking about going home, he would bring out the port and his plans, spreading them both generously across the half-cleared table.

"Imagine travelling up the length of the Yarra on the bottom of the river", he'd say — or even, "It's conceivable that you could make a journey all the way around the coast to Sydney, avoiding all the squalls".

His guests would never fail to nod beamingly and try to decipher the pictures he had drawn.

As long as Wal could remember, Ern had been talking about his "craft" — and slowly stockpiling materials in the back of his automobile repair yard. But he'd never actually progressed towards construction of it — at least not until he heard about the Ah Loys' flying machine.

What was even more annoying to Ern than the news of the Ah Loys' project was the manner they were going about it. The Ah Loys worked 12-hour days for Mrs James Fortesqueue, and only in the evenings or on weekends did they have free time to devote to their planning and building.

But Ern took the news of their project like a challenge — a gauntlet flung down in front of him. From that sunny Sunday afternoon, he stopped going to the Empire Club and devoted all his energies to his "craft". He closed down the car yard, "temporarily", as the sign on the gates advised, and he moved his bed into the workshop so that when he woke up in the night with a brilliant idea, he could immediately apply it to the construction.

Little was heard about Ern's progress for the first few weeks, particularly after his wife took the children and moved off to her mother's at Bendigo.

Wal became the only visitor to inspect Ern's work, or the only visitor Ern allowed in, as he assured Wal. But even then, he only really stopped to ask Wal, "What news of the Ah Loys?".

Wal described Ern's state around town as "frantic", but when he divulged to Ern that he had discovered the planned launching date of the Ah Loys' flying machine, he changed the description to "fanatic".

Ern had to launch his own invention before the Ah Loys, and so he set his own launch date just slightly ahead of theirs, and then asked Wal to cordially invite all the dignitaries from around the town to attend.

Upon Wal's courteous insistence, the local Chamber of Manufactures and the Ballarat Times were, of course, firmly behind Ern's vessel. He was, after all, a member of the Commonwealth Club. If Ern was embarked upon some skilled engineering project, it would ultimately be of benefit to the whole community. And of course, the little informed comment that was made around town about the Ah Loys' flying machine was generally derisive and dismissive.

"A crazed and desperate project, fraught with danger for all involved", was how the editor of the Ballarat Times, Ern's old cricket mate, had described it.

Ern's project, however, attracted adjectives such as "daring", "innovative" and "imaginative" — adjectives reserved for the grandest of projects, and not used together in one sentence in the Ballarat Times since the planned, but sadly uncompleted, construction of the city's floral depiction of Buckingham Palace.

On the day of the launch of Ern's daring, innovative and imaginative craft, the whole town turned out. At least it looked like the whole town, although Ern's wife and family were not present, remaining firmly in Bendigo.

The mayor and his wife officiated, and she was dressed in the flowing white gown that her mother had worn when the Duke of Edinburgh visited Melbourne in 1867.

All the dignitaries of the town were there, and some had even missed the Abyssinian Friendship Society's annual bridge party to attend. A military band from Castlemaine began the proceedings by playing "God Save the King" — which for many was the first time they had heard it played since it superseded the previous anthem, "God save the Queen".

Ern's craft, the centre of all attention, sat by the small pier on the lake shore, ready for its maiden voyage. It was a strange looking vessel, most readily admitted, but showed definite and well-crafted lines. It appeared, to some present who strived to find a description for it, like a varnished wooden barrel, bound with metal hoops. On the top was a door, along the sides were porthole windows, and underneath, out of sight, the audience were grandly promised, were the wheels from an early model German automobile.

In front of the crowd, Ern suppressed his modesty and nerves and proclaimed that this day heralded a great day for the enterprises and industry of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia and the Empire. The crowd cheered with enthusiasm. Ern held the customary bottle of champagne aloft and brought it down heavily on the bows of the craft. No sooner had the vessel been christened than it began to sink slowly out of sight beneath the still waters of the lake.

The crowd cheered even louder. Some applauded and whistled. Ern himself could not quite be heard to mutter, "But it's not ready to go yet. I'm not inside it."

Carried away with enthusiasm, the cheering crowd made their way around the lake to await the vessel's emergence on the far shore.

Ern, with an inkling of how long the crowd would be standing there waiting, slunk home, packed his bags and quietly joined his wife and family in Bendigo.

The Ah Loys also disappeared from Ballarat that day, and the only witness to their leaving was a drunken poet of little considered talents, who swore he saw them flying northwards as the sun set over the horizon.