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The Return of Phil Harras Private HMI;Comment;Opinion

It was an emergency inspection. I slewed the Herald to a stop outside the main entrance, grabbed my hat and swung out of the car. A broad in a well-cut black and white number with small checks met me at the door. I figured she was the head. "What's the story, sister?" I asked as she barged through a pair of swing doors without slowing. "It's Mr Malloy in modern languages. He's holed up in the base, holding our AHT (curriculum) hostage with a copy of the Higher Still arrangements at her throat. It's getting ugly."

"I can deal with ugly. I've been at national meetings of English teachers."

We reached the door of the base. A small cordon of senior management team figures stood at the door. The deputy head, a short guy with straining shirt buttons, had picked up a cleaner's "wet floor" cone and was using it as a loud hailer. "Come on out, Malloy. We've got the joint surrounded." he boomed. I whipped the cone from him. "That won't work," I said.

"Who the hell are you?" Rather than show the deputy my school dick licence, I let him see my Special Teaching Service (the elite, covert wing of the GTC) tie clip. It shut him up.

"Now pay attention," I ordered. I took off my hat and trenchcoat and walked through the cordon into the base. Some of the SMT crouched down, their faces tightening. Malloy was sitting with the AHT in an armlock with Higher Still under her chin. He hauled her up as I came in. "Easy, Bub," I said. "I'm a supply hostage. The broad's got an inset on Korean maths teaching methods." Malloy seemed happy with this and let her go. He motioned me to sit down. "So what's the problem, Bub?" I asked.

"Shut up! I won't speak to a two-bit supply hostage. I want the press, politicians."

"Pardon me, Malloy, but you want the latest version of that document you're holding on me."

"What are you on about?" he said slowly.

"Up there, on the shelf. 'Higher than an old man's trouser band'." The sap fell for it. In the instant he was distracted I did the old one-two and knocked Higher Still across the floor while simultaneously pinning him face down across a mobile wall unit.

"OK, Bub," I hissed. "You've got two minutes to tell Uncle Phil what this is all about. Starting one minute ago."

The guy began to blub. "I didn't mean it to happen like this," he sniffed. "But no one took me seriously and I put years of work into my project. All my career I've seen squabbles over which languages a kid should take - ancient, modern, Celtic. So I invented my own language. It's a sort of European Gaelic. I call it Elba."

"Can you tell it from Erse?" I asked.

"I've had the same cheap shot from everyone I've talked to." His voice became stronger. "The point is that learning it gives you all the skills that learning all the other languages give - French, German, Latin."

"But nobody speaks it."

"So what? How many people use their French or German. Or their physics or chemistry for that matter? That doesn't mean they're not worth learning."

I couldn't think of anything more to say to the sap. He was looking at a five-stretch in the slammer or a two-year secondment to some obscure development unit. Either way, he'd have plenty of time to practise his new language. "Time to go, Malloy," I said, following him out the door.

"Moghlihn mae boihd!" he cried defiantly as we emerged, but I guessed no one would ever know what the hell he meant.

Gregor Steele

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