Fidelma Cook passed away in late June. We are running a selection of her columns as a tribute. This one is from September 2009. We hope you enjoy it.

Centuries ago news travelled slowly, by word of mouth. In rural communities the pedlar was the source of all “current affairs” and gossip, eagerly awaited by the locals who were starved of any information beyond their immediate neighbours.

Scurrilous tales, kingly misdoings, bizarre natural happenings, all were doled out as entertainment to ease the selling of his wares. On his departure, the sated villagers sank back into their black hole of unawareness until the arrival of the next passer-through.

Strangely, despite a plethora of instant news via internet and television, the best gossip still comes in the old way here. The modern pedlar is the British builder, the pool man, the gardener or the odd-job man who weave their way through the expat communities gathering up this here, that there.

They know who’s doing what to whom, who’s heading for divorce, or death, which house will be coming on the market. For the offer of a coffee, a beer, or even better, the old tongue-loosening vin rouge, for an hour or so they are putty in the hands of a sly interviewer such as myself.

It is not just that I’m a bored, nosey old bat who thrives on gossip. Rather, that I feed on such tales to fuel my “back story” theory.

To take an example. An English couple are renting a house deep in the Gers while preparing to complete on another and interviewing various workmen in advance of getting the keys. A straightforward situation, happening all the time,

you would think. Ah, but this couple handed over a massive wad of cash to the notaire as their deposit; paid cash again for two top-of-the-range vehicles, one a 4X4; and have bought another, smaller house nearby, again for cash.

They’ve paid full asking price for both houses – unheard of – and reportedly offered a further £100,000 inducement to one of the owners if they would be out within three weeks. Tradesmen tell me that the planned alterations won’t come shy of another £200,000.

Potential artisans are told they will be paid … in cash. One of the major works planned is a garage to house a collection of classic cars.Probing deeper I find they stonewall all questions of their origins, their previous jobs, even if they have children. They do have two large “security” dogs, though, which they leave roaming in the grounds to deter visitors.

In all a veritable pot-pourri of potential for a former investigative reporter; for as I’ve discovered here, from the outset, nothing or no-one is exactly what they seem. All, I’ve decided, hold a “back story,” the real truth of why they came to France and not the one polished for public scrutiny.

Some are running from something; others perhaps running from someone; many are simply on a process of re-invention, creating a far more interesting past now they have a clean-slate present.

All expats, by virtue of the ability to exile themselves, have in common a certain resourcefulness, an openness to the unknown and the courage to make major change.

All, though, with few exceptions, have in some way been bounced into their decision. A faltering marriage accelerates a desperate push for change. A failed business, a need to walk far away. A moment of notoriety, a desire to hide and heal.

From the start, when asked why I came here, I answered: Got made redundant, financially buggered, needed a cheaper way of life, drank too much one night and France seemed a brilliant idea.

Told too many people and couldn’t back out.

No wonder they reeled back as if in danger of being trampled on by a mad horse. I was supposed to say: I’m a total Francophone – adore the country, the food, the weather. Spent every summer here and finally grasped the chance to just follow my dream. Love it.

That’s the official line. More and more I sensed the back story in many of them: the warning glance between husband and wife as I pressed for detail.

The vagueness of certain parts of their past, yet the detailed recall of other episodes.

And why the hell, you ask, should they deliver their lives to me on a plate? Is it too weak to suggest that their real lives seem far more interesting than the bland, carefully constructed ones they now inhabit?

I don’t pursue everybody’s back story. Some, one senses, come from great personal loss. The ones that intrigue me have the whisper of the dark about them; of rewards gained at the cost of others and a cost of constant vigilance to themselves.

I’m expecting another pedlar tomorrow and hope he can add to the picture of the cash-flash couple in the Gers to further cement my back-story theory.

It has to be proved. After all, how hellish would it be if so many of these expats were exactly what they say they are?