The offer of free software is bound to be attractive, but is there a catch? That is what the cynic in me asked when I saw various advertisements and mail shots from Serif Software. A publishing package at no cost? An arts package for nothing? A whole collection of clip-art images - graphics files that can be used and reproduced without charge - and founts, for free? And on CD-rom, too. It all sounded too good to be true.

OK, so the small print did mention a pounds 6 per disk administration and postage charge, but I felt I could live with that, particularly when the contact method was by an 0800 freephone number.

I went for the clip-art CD-rom, it being ideal for my needs, and hoped I would be one of the first 150,000 people in the UK to make the call. At 5.20pm I dialled the number. A few rings and it was answered with a request for a product code. I was then told I would be put through to that department and was asked to hold.

Then music: Gerry and the Pacemakers, followed by the Lovin' Spoonful. Recollections of a warm spring day in 1966 playing cricket for the school team. Five minutes into the call and I am starting to feel grateful that this is a freephone number. If I had been paying, the phone would have been put down long ago. But if Serif wants to pay to play me jukebox memories, that's fine.

On to "California Dreaming" now. This is clearly one of those boxed-set Hits of the Sixties - four CDs for a tenner out of Our Price. Long John Baldry's "Heartaches" is next. Eventually, at 5.45pm, a human voice belonging to someone called Howard replaces the Kinks. Thank God, I think, at least I didn't have to suffer Cilla.

When I tell Howard I would like the free software on offer, he immediately goes into his sales pitch. "How much would you be prepared to pay for a graphics package that offered you 7,000 items of clip-art?" Thrown, I mumble an answer, knowing that all I really want is the 1,000 items for nothing.

Howard goes on to tell me how wonderful the 7,000 items are. He asks me what packages I already have and tells me how well the Serif software would work with these. "You do realise these are all in Windows Metafile format so they are fully scaleable to any size without leaving any jagged edges?"

"Yes," I reply. "I have read the literature. That's why I want to try the free software."

"Well, as a special offer, I can let you have the full 7,000 clip-art items, normal price pounds 59.95, for only pounds 39.95," says Howard, adding, "but only if you order it today." I decline. The price comes down by a further pounds 10. I only want the free CD, I tell him. But Howard persists, emphasising again how effective the clip-art will be when used in Microsoft Word 6 and how impressive my work will be in Microsoft Publisher.

When I continue to decline, even at pounds 24.95, Howard unloads the ultimate question: "How much will you give me, then?" Just like the disconcerting "Make me an offer" that hits you in a Turkish bazaar when a man with a roll of cloth tries to sell you a suit. Still, nothing ventured. "I wouldn't be prepared to go above pounds 20," I say, feeling certain that the phone will go down and I will be free from Howard and his confident banter.

"Fine, how do you want to pay: Access or Visa?" Astounded by the seemingly amazing deal I have just struck, I read out my Visa card number. Howard tells me the total cost, including VAT, and wishes me well. The phone call has lasted 40 minutes, paid for by Serif, and I have got myself a magnificent bargain - or have I? I await the software.

My first surprise, a few days later, was that I got both CDs - the one with the 7,000 clip-art images, as purchased, and the "free" one with 1,000 images and 100 Truetype fonts. The images were impressive and often produced in an amusing cartoon style. When I wanted a clown for a write- up on Red Nose Day, I got several. When I needed a ski-related drawing for a newsletter, I had a choice of a dozen.

Perhaps the drawings are a little too American in content, and certainly they rely on stereotypes that will cause me some problems with their use at work. (The first distributor of politically correct, non-sexist clip- art will make a fortune.)

The founts, too, were fine, if I had needed yet another 100 founts, but the real delight was discovering that the free CD contained the introductory versions of the graphics and DTP packages. While claiming to be only 5 per cent of the full package, Serif Drawplus Intro is outstanding.

So that is the twist. I was bombarded with hard sell, and had to pay pounds 20 instead of nothing. But in the end I got much more than I had expected. I can only guess that Serif's marketing strategy is to shift CD-roms, at any price. But so long as the company can produce software of this standard, I will be happy to negotiate a sale. Even if it means another session with Hits of the Sixties.