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Unit 33 – Office life

Difficulty: Easy/medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds


The passage below is an extract from James Plunkett’s short story The Eagles and The Trumpets

On the first Friday of every month, precisely at 11.45, the chief clerk put on his bowler hat, hung his umbrella on his arm, and left to spend the rest of the day inspecting the firm’s branch office. It was one of the few habits of the chief clerk which the office staff approved. It meant that for the rest of the evening they could do more or less as they pleased. Sweeney, who had been watching the monthly ceremony from the public counter with unusual interest, turned around to find Higgins at his elbow.
‘You’re wanted,’ he was told.
‘Our mutual musketeer – Ellis. He’s in his office.’
That was a joke. It meant Ellis was in the store room at the top of the building. Part of the duties assigned to Ellis was the filing away of forms and documents. The firm kept kept them for twenty-five years, after which they were burned. Ellis spent interminable periods in the store-room, away from supervision and interference. It was a much-coveted position. Sweeney, disturbed in his day-dreaming, frowned at Higgins and said:
‘Why the hell can’t he come down and see me?’
It was his habit to grumble. He hated the stairs up to the store-room and he hated the store-room. He disliked most of the staff, especially the few who were attending night-school classes for accountancy and secretarial management in order to get on in the job. Put into the firm at nineteen years of age because it was a good, safe, comfortable job, with a pension scheme and adequate indemnity against the boredom, no contributory scheme which would save his manhood from rotting silently inside him among the ledgers and the comptometer machines. From nine to five he decayed among the serried desks with their paper baskets and their telephones, and from five onwards there was the picture house, occasional women, and drink when there was money for it.
The store-room was a sort of paper tomb, with tiers of forms and documents in dusty bundles, which exhaled a musty odour. He found Ellis making tea. A paper-covered book had been flung to one side. On the cover he could make out the words Selected Poems, but not whose they were. He was handed a cup with a chocolate biscuit in the saucer.
‘Sit down,’ Ellis commanded.
Sweeney, surprised at the luxury of the chocolate biscuit, held it up and inspected it with raised eyebrows.
Ellis offered milk and sugar.
‘I pinched them out of Miss Bouncing’s drawers,’ he said deliberately.
Sweeney, secure in the knowledge that the chief clerk was already on his way across town, munched the biscuit contentedly and looked down into the street.


1. Throughout the passage the chief clerk is portrayed as:

  • A      Strict
  • B      Carefree
  • C      Unhappy
  • D      Lenient


2. How do the ‘serried desks’ contribute to Sweeney’s impression of the office?

  • A      They are old fashioned
  • B      They represent the futility of the work
  • C      They embody sameness and monotony
  • D      They are comfortable


3. Ellis and Sweeney would most likely agree with which of the following statements?

  • A      The routine of the office has its advantages
  • B      The job is a good, safe and comfortable one
  • C      The staff taking night-school classes are wasting their lives
  • D      The office management is oppressive


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  • Answers:
    Q1: A
    Strict. We are told that the chief clerk leaving was one of the few habits which his staff appreciated. This indicates a negative perception of him. We are also told Ellis’ job ‘away from supervision’ was a ‘much coveted’ position. Also, Sweeney munched the biscuit secure in the knowledge that the chief was far away. This implies that he wouldn’t dare it while the chief was there.

    Q2: C
    Sweeney finds his job boring and unfulfilling. Serried means ordered in a row. This most closely implies sameness and monotony.

    Q3: A
    Both men enjoy a break on the last Friday of every month as a result of the chief’s routine absence. B, C and D are all thoughts of Sweeney’s. We have no evidence that would allow us to project these same opinions onto Ellis.

    Gamsat Sample Questions

    June 13, 2012

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