The Packet is serialising Falmouth-based journalist Nicola K Smith’s debut novel, A Degree of Uncertainty over the next six weekends, printing one chapter a week to help keep readers entertained in these straitened times.

A Degree of Uncertainty was published in November 2019 and has since sold more than 500 copies, as well as attracting more than 130 free downloads as part of a St Piran’s Day promotion in March.

It has been continually on loan at Cornwall’s libraries too.

The book tells of a fictional Cornish community divided by its growing university.

Formidable Vice Chancellor Dawn Goldberg is pushing for expansion, while local businessman Harry Manchester is fighting to halt further growth and protect his beloved home town from what he sees as certain ruin.

A Degree of Uncertainty is inspired by Falmouth, but is set in a fictional Cornish community with imagined characters.

It has been variously reviewed by readers as “a fast paced story seething with romantic subplots and small town jealousies”; “very well written, and full of colourful characters that kept me hooked from start to finish” and “a great study in human nature”.

For readers wanting more, you can buy the paperback from the Falmouth Bookseller (currently online only at, direct from Nicola’s website at (postage is free) or download the ebook online at Amazon (


Harry Manchester blinked at the red bulb flashing before his eyes. He squared his shoulders. The intense heat of the studio lights seemed only to fuel his confidence. This was his time, his moment. He summoned his ready TV smile and waited.

‘And three, two, one… live.’

Jenny Trundle was even more attractive in real life, her skin smooth and her green eyes flashing, shapely bronzed legs elegantly arranged.

‘We have Harry Manchester in the studio, one of the biggest estate agents in the West Cornwall town of Poltowan—’

‘We are the biggest actually—’

‘Thank you, Harry,’ she said. ‘Now you launched the Local Houses for Local People campaign that has been gathering momentum in Poltowan – a town which, I understand, is becoming increasingly divided by its rapidly expanding university?’

‘That’s right, Jenny. We need to cap the number of houses rented to students in the town before the balance tips too far.’ Harry’s voice gained deeper resonance. ‘Without being melodramatic about it, the lives of many of Poltowan’s long-term residents are being ruined by the change in its population, and the town itself, which is renowned for its charm, is turning into a ghetto…’

Jenny frowned, adjusting her earpiece, adrenaline starting to course through her. ‘Sorry – we have just heard, live on air, that Poltowan University’s Vice Chancellor, Dawn Goldberg, has this afternoon lodged a formal application to increase student numbers by fifty per cent – meaning an estimated three thousand more coming to the town next year. What is your response to that, Harry?’

Dawn Goldberg had a nerve. She had the previous week promised to work closely with Harry “to address any concerns”, before fawning all over his new car in the university car park. They had met formally for the first time only after he had gone to some lengths to arrange a meeting with her, a stilted affair it had taken him two months to achieve. There had been no mention of any such development then. Her timing was characteristically impeccable.

Harry unfolded his long legs, balled his right hand into a fist. ‘That is hugely disappointing, Jenny. I think it’s also very worrying for the people of Poltowan, who are already struggling to adapt to living cheek by jowl with such a large student population.’

‘I understand that the vote on the application will be held at the beginning of March. Does that give you sufficient time to mount a credible campaign against this increase?’

Harry sat forward, locking eyes with the presenter. He calculated the dates quickly in his head, realising the vote was about five weeks away. ‘If there is one thing I have learned from many years of living in the town, it is that the people of Poltowan do not, and will not, give up easily. We will fight this – with everything we have.’

He pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. As he did so he felt a disconcerting vibration in his pocket, followed by the ugly buzz of feedback from his microphone. A high-pitched voice was asking Scaramouch if he could dance, if he could do the fandango, the tinny music playing jauntily from his trousers.

Jenny Trundle glared at him from behind her angular, pink glasses, somehow managing a smile for the viewers at the same time. ‘Apologies for the musical accompaniment there, I think someone has forgotten to turn off their mobile phone.’ The noise came to an abrupt end and Harry felt the tingling sensation in his groin subside.

‘My apologies. Don’t get me wrong, students have brought some huge benefits to Poltowan, but we need to redress the balance and ensure that more residents are not pushed out. The news that has come to light today,’ he paused, holding her gaze, ‘has the potential to be quite devastating for the people of our town.’

‘But not for the many local businesses who have seen an average uplift of twenty-three per cent since the university opened its doors three years ago?’

Glimpsing a man in the glass-fronted studio booth hold his hands aloft and begin to count down on his fingers, Harry made his sign-off as succinct as he could. ‘There are two sides to every story, Jenny, but at the end of the day, living in Poltowan is about community, not personal gain.’

‘Thank you, Harry Manchester, for joining us this evening. Sadly, we will have to leave it there.’

‘The town’s many beautiful houses,’ he tried to add, inching forward in his seat as he did so, ‘must be made available to locals and their families, not just a transient population—’

‘Harry Manchester, thank you.’

He smiled and acknowledged camera three, then camera two, suddenly unsure which one he had been told to look at. Perspiration dribbled down his left temple.

Jenny Trundle windmilled her legs again for camera four's benefit and rearranged her smile. ‘Now, if you have been hoping for some milder weather of late, you might—’

A hand took Harry’s elbow and a skinny young man with oversized headphones urged him from his seat and off set. ‘Thanks, mate. All done here.’ He reached up, unclipping the microphone from Harry’s shirt with one deft move and pulling the battery pack from his back pocket. ‘Cheers.’

Harry looked around, expecting someone to come and congratulate him on his performance, or at least offer him some refreshments in the Green Room. A short, rotund lady stood several feet away, clutching a clipboard to her ample bosom. She rounded on him.

‘Sir, sir,’ she said in hushed but urgent tones. ‘If you could move off set, that way, that’s right… quickly now!’ She gesticulated as she spoke and suddenly Harry found himself in a cramped corridor, the studio door closing softly but definitively behind him, followed by the unmistakable sound of a key turning in a lock. The familiar closing tune of News Time started up as Harry began to work his way back along the labyrinthine corridors of the television station.

He had done well, he thought, mopping his brow with his Freddie Mercury monogrammed handkerchief. He had got his key messages across and even been able to think on his feet in the face of breaking news, not something everyone could handle.

He thought back to Dawn Goldberg’s easy laughter during their meeting and the way she had tossed her hair over her shoulder when she was about to make a point. He had been prepared to challenge the prevailing gossip, to understand her point of view as Vice Chancellor of the University. And, if he was honest, he had also been more than a little impressed by her knowledge of the Mercedes V6 racing engine.

He felt used. But his disappointment in Dawn Goldberg was tempered by a touch of excitement. Now the people of Poltowan needed him more than ever. He pushed his way manfully through two sets of swing doors.

He thought of Mrs Coleman, who had only that morning mouthed something incomprehensible but encouraging through his office window, holding aloft her fist as she disappeared up the hill. He thought of Dave Jose, who had popped in to shake his hand the previous day, turning as he left to say, ‘You don’t know ’ow important you are to us, ’arry, to this whole town.’ He thought of Steph the bar owner, who had fallen into his arms after one too many gins the week before, bemoaning the fate of Poltowan. ‘You won’t let them do it to us, will you, Harry?’ she had asked him, rhetorically.

They would all have tuned in tonight. They would be rattled by the latest news, of course, but they would be relieved that he was on their side; confident that he would fight their corner. They would be pleased that he had not allowed himself to be fazed by Jenny Trundle’s slightly hostile manner. He had stood his ground.

He squeezed into the revolving door. He had even given his beloved Queen some air time, albeit unwittingly. That was twice his new iPhone had failed to respond to the mute voice command. He must get Ludo to look at it.

The January air was icy as Harry lumbered up the road in the direction of the multi-storey car park. A biting wind blew up Plymouth Hoe, screaming as it rounded each corner. Dustbin lids wheeled along the streets and tin cans rattled their way into gutters.

He felt his phone buzz several times against his heart and imagined the flood of messages following his TV appearance. He turned his collar up and bent his head towards the wind, clutching the Mercedes' key in his pocket. He muttered some words about being caught in a landslide with no escape from reality as he tried to ward off the cold. If anything, Dawn Goldberg had unwittingly given him a stronger platform for his campaign, a fixed point to which he could more tightly tether his cause. This was an opportunity, he decided, straightening his back.

On the corner of Saxon Street he saw something move in the entrance to a narrow alley next to Barclays. At first he thought it was an animal scavenging for food, but as he drew closer he realised it was a young woman, huddled in a blanket in the dark, a woollen hat pulled low over her brow. She tilted her face up towards him as he approached, shuffling into the glow of the streetlight. Her skin was almost translucent, eyes hollow.

‘Any change to spare, please, any at all, just a…’

Harry continued past. The persistent cold was making his eyes stream and the frames of his glasses were digging into his sinuses. At the last moment he turned, retreating a couple of steps and pausing. He reached inside his jacket to find his wallet, his numb fingers grappling for the opening.

A hard blow rained down between his shoulder blades, expelling the air from his lungs, before an unknown force collided with the back of his knees, bringing him gracelessly to the ground. His glasses clattered to the tarmac and his wallet skidded away in the darkness. His eye socket slammed against the brickwork.

In seconds she was gone, rucksack on back, a shadowy figure disappearing towards the inky sea. Harry tried to call out as he struggled to his feet, a searing pain in his right kneecap, his breathing shallow and painful. His shout drifted away on the wind. He reached automatically for his wrist to check that his watch was in place and grasped his Rolex tightly.

Moments later he found his glasses on the ground, but his wallet was nowhere to be seen. He waved his iPhone slowly around the pavement, its powerful torch illuminating some old takeaway cartons and an empty cigarette packet. He plucked a fusty blanket between thumb and forefinger and shone the light underneath. Nothing.

Easing himself to his feet, he dialled the police, his chilled fingers first making several shaky stabs at the touch screen. The female questioner was brusque, her brevity reassuringly pragmatic. He answered her questions in the same manner, aware that his description of the female mugger was perhaps slightly exaggerated, her bulk greater, height more imposing – after all, it had been dark and he couldn’t be sure. He completed the business-like transaction with his contact details. Only then did the call handler's voice soften.

‘Are you OK to drive home, sir? Would you like an officer to—’

He could feel his knee already swelling from the impact, and his head ached with a dull pain. ‘I’ll be fine. Just doing my civic duty, alerting you so other less able persons aren’t needlessly put at risk.’

‘Thank you, sir. We’ll be in touch.’

Harry limped towards the car park, out of the wind. Instinctively he called Sylvia. He didn’t want to tell Jo, not yet.


‘Sylvia, it’s me.’

‘So I gathered.’

Harry sucked the cold air into his lungs, his ribs smarting at the effort. He leaned his weight on the car door. ‘I’ve been mugged.’

‘Mugged? In Poltowan?’

‘Plymouth... It doesn’t matter where. My bank stuff, the paperwork, it’s in a red box file in the garage with the rest of my things. I need to cancel my cards.’

‘Are you alright?’

‘I’ll pick it up on my way past… in about an hour and a half. Will you be there?’

‘Are you hurt?’

He extended his knee slowly. ‘No. But she took my wallet.’

‘It was a woman?’

‘There was a group of them,’ he blurted. ‘One was a woman.’

He could almost hear her disappointment in the ensuing silence.

‘Have you rung the police?’

‘Yes, yes. It’s fine. Just some chancers. I need to cancel my cards.’

‘Haven’t you got your data backed up? Don’t you still use that iPhone app?’

Harry stayed silent.

‘You can pick it up later,’ she said eventually. ‘I’m not going out. Not tonight.’

He groaned as he slammed the car door shut, easing himself into the driver’s seat. The silence and relative warmth of the Mercedes provided welcome relief. He placed his phone in the holder and pushed a button. The dashboard lit up before him, the engine simultaneously purring into life. Another button prompted warm air to start filling the car noiselessly.

Harry took his glasses off to clean the left lens but the mark proved stubborn. Peering closely, he saw a crack straight across the middle. He swore under his breath before placing them back on his nose, adjusting the angle so he could see through the fractured glass.

He began to make his way through the sea of lights towards the main road. When he flicked the radio on, haunting violin notes filled the air. He pushed the buttons, first on his steering wheel and then on the dashboard. Classic FM stubbornly refused to shift. He thought about using the voice activation but he didn’t have the heart to talk to himself.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.