Callers at the West End offices of Messrs Toque & Gusset, the well-known rag-trade public-relations firm, rarely fail to be charmed by Arabella, the custodian of its reception desk.
A tall, red-haired girl with a seraphic smile, infallibly polite on the telephone, always able to distinguish a visiting CEO from a journalist trying his luck, Arabella – slight tendency to prolong her lunch hour until 2.25pm notwithstanding – has garnered the heartfelt esteem of everyone from the managing director to the office junior. So why should she be resigning after a bare six weeks in the job to go off travelling in the Far East?
The problem, as Arabella will willingly explain to anyone who takes the trouble to listen, is the great difficulty she finds in settling to anything. "Really, you see," she will confide – the habitual far-away look in her eyes suddenly replaced by absolute seriousness – "I'm just a free spirit."
Certainly an account of her past 10 years – Arabella has just turned 29 – is enough to bear out this declaration. She was a free spirit at university, which she left after five terms having changed subject twice, and the free-est imaginable presence at the publishing firm to which she then proceeded, and from which she was fired after four months. Everyone liked her; bestselling authors used to ask after her, and she babysat the marketing director's twins. Yet the evidence of her itemised telephone records – a stunning 53 calls one sultry June forenoon, including 19 to the Speaking Clock – could not be gainsaid.
What has Arabella been up to since then? Her CV is a long and incriminating document: chalet girl at Verbier; dog-breeder on the Northumbrian border; a parliamentary research assistantship which ended with her employer nearly leaving his wife; secretary to a rare-book firm; front of house at the Tate… Her father, who allows her £10,000 a year, adores her. "Really," Arabella will say, with not the faintest hint of irony, "people shouldn't give me jobs. They know what I'm like."
As for the men, dozens of them now, ranging from Lloyds underwriters to record-company executives, none of them has succeeded in mastering her heart. Yet absolute unreliability about all social engagements and familial obligations aside, it is impossible not to like Arabella. She will be a free spirit at 80 – prodigious charm still unsullied by any suspicion that freedoms of this kind generally have to be paid for by somebody.