The Packet is serialising Falmouth-based journalist Nicola K Smith’s debut novel, A Degree of Uncertainty, printing one chapter a week for six weeks 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 (

This week it is chapter three.

You can read chapter two here and chapter one here.


Dawn Goldberg took four deliberate paces towards the corner of her well-appointed office, overlooking the gardens between her and the digital animation studios.

In the middle of the lawns, white-tinged under a thin covering of frost, stood a huge statue of a naked man, paint brush held over an imaginary easel, chin angled, deep in thought.

She had commissioned it the year before from a former student who had recently won a prize from some well-respected arts body looking to recognise future talent. It had caused quite a stir, and not only within the walls of the university. The Poltowan Post had featured it on its front page under the headline ‘Naked Ambition?’, and run it alongside a photo of a smiling Dawn Goldberg with the quote, “It is art, not porn.” The furore that followed had only served to highlight the ignorance of so many people, she thought, who worked themselves into an irrational frenzy when presented with the magnificent male form.

She looked at it, a seagull perched audaciously upon the statue’s head, and smiled. She liked to call it Michael, for reasons she could not now recall. The statue was angled in such a way that she could fully appreciate his ample manhood, almost as if he were standing there for her pleasure alone. She would often practise her speeches on him, looking to him for some sign of endorsement, which he invariably gave.

She twisted around to face the three actual men sitting before her, tossing her head in the shaft of winter sunlight and imagining how the newly applied golden-red colours – “burnished gold” her hairdresser had called the shade – would be lending her an almost angelic hue. Her father's photograph gazed up at her from the wooden frame on her desk, his characteristically ambiguous expression suggesting that he too thought the men in front of her were buffoons, hardly worthy of her time, and certainly not deserving of her patience.

Slowly she began to launch into what she called her “future strategy”, outlining her plans to win over the people who mattered, changing hearts and minds. It was, after all, only a matter of time before her plans for the enlargement of the university received the go ahead.

Andy Hornblower shifted in his seat, mouth visibly twitching, occasionally opening for a few seconds before slowly shutting again like a soft-closing bin. Each time his fat lips threatened to utter a sound, Dawn raised her voice slightly, sometimes lifting her finger in the air as if leading a dog obedience class.

The other two men listened enraptured, the angle of their heads mimicking hers as her curls danced around her bespectacled face. Andy cleared his throat during one of Dawn’s rare pauses for breath, summoning the courage to speak.

‘I’ve prepared some detailed plans along the lines of the actions you suggested, Dawn.’ He raised the carefully bound document he had been clutching in his lap. ‘I’ll leave it with you, but I think you’ll find it adds a bit of meat to the bone, shall we say, dots the i’s, crosses the t’s. And I’ve provisionally scheduled a meeting with Carrie Menhenick at Poltowan Council, she’s—’

‘I don’t think that will be necessary Andy.’ Dawn spun around to see the seagull hop down to Michael’s nether regions, its tiny eyes darting left and right as if it knew it was pushing the boundaries of social acceptability.

‘I have just outlined exactly how the manifesto will take shape, and we needn’t waste our time on the local Council. It’s the County Council who will have the final say. Luke, you get on to the local press, gauge the mood, see what they’re planning. Jowan, you research every possible line of objection and find a rebuttal as to why it’s unsound. Andy, you oversee both and report back to me once we have a watertight strategy. I, meanwhile, am leveraging my contacts in the national press and at the County Council.’ She rolled the l seductively and brought her hands together as if in prayer when she'd finished speaking.

‘I really do think you should reconsider holding a meeting with Harry Manchester…’ muttered Andy.

‘I saw him last week,’ said Dawn, her voice rising an octave. ‘And I don’t need to see that loathsome gawping man from that snivelling little industry again.’

‘But, Dawn, we should remember he wields considerable local influence, and after contriving to let him find out about our expansion plans on live TV, I think it might be wise to…’

Dawn crossed the office floor quickly, her sturdy legs striding into the shadows where Andy sat. Her painted finger was held aloft, her eyes wide. ‘And I rather think that this meeting is closed.’ She paused for a moment after she'd made her announcement, relishing her ability to bring instantaneous quiet upon the room.

‘One other thing—’ Andy said, exhaling as if a captor had finally removed tape from his mouth. Dawn glared down at him, her finger still raised. He seemed unaware of quite how close to the wind he was sailing. ‘Dave White has written an open letter to Kernow Click. It’s online now. Might be a good idea for you have a look – in case you want to respond?’

She glowered at him.

‘When I was in the police,’ he continued, ‘it was always considered best practice to—’

‘You are not in the force now, PC Hornblower.’

Jowan coughed. Luke studied the worn-down heels of his shoes.

‘Well, I wasn’t actually a PC, as you know, I worked—’

‘Off you go, gents. No time to waste.’

Dawn sat behind her desk as the last of them filed out. It pleased her to see Luke and Jowan’s admiring glances, their eyes dipping towards her cleavage as she spoke. Sometimes she wondered if this was how an actor felt, strutting across the stage in front of a worshipful audience, everybody hanging on their every word, eyes unable to disguise the marvel they felt at the genius before them.

She slid open her left-hand drawer and eyed the miniature vodka bottle inside. Sucking in her breath, she retrieved a packet of chocolate biscuits instead, forcing one into her mouth whole. She closed her eyes in momentary rapture, the chocolate melting on her tongue, the sweet sugary sensation pleasingly spiking her bloodstream.

A tentative knock at the office door forced her to attempt an ill-timed and painful swallow, and for a terrifying moment she was rendered speechless. The knock sounded again a few seconds later, this time with slightly more commitment.

The apparent impatience of the interruption, not to mention the inconsiderate and presumptuous timing, would ordinarily have made Dawn set her jaw and flare her nostrils slightly. It was a look that could strike terror into her colleagues, unsure quite what ruthless affront would follow. But with her upper and lower jaw currently unable to meet, she knew she'd better not attempt it. She slammed her desk drawer shut and brushed the cascade of crumbs from her Apple Mac.

‘Yes,’ she said eventually, shifting her laptop slightly so as to screen off the glance of her father, the enigmatic smile having somehow morphed into one of disapproval.

The door creaked open. Andy entered the room as if someone had pushed him from behind, the bound document still clamped under his arm. He had vowed to enter with conviction and stride towards her. He had even envisioned tossing the document down on the desk in front of her before thrusting his hands casually into his pockets and telling her exactly what was on his mind, just like Jonathan Seaman used to do.

Jonathan had seemed to get away with it, although he was, admittedly, taller than Andy, with an angular jaw and a mop of dark hair. He had been spotted on numerous occasions enjoying intimate lunches with Dawn where several bottles of wine had, by all accounts, been consumed. Andy had often wondered why a man of his standing had left so suddenly.

Instead, Andy hovered uncertainly while Dawn contrived to frown down at the blank screen in front of her, her tongue working hard to dislodge the remaining biscuit.

He grew in confidence as he spoke, taking her silence for a sign of acquiescence. He deigned to place the document on the desk in front of her, not quite tossing it, but placing it with considered casualness, before slipping one hand slowly into his pocket.

‘… and I think the detail in there will be hugely valuable in fine tuning some of the PR actions we discussed earlier. We do, after all, need to be careful not to ignore the student audience, who will play a key role in helping us shift public opinion and nail this thing.’

Dawn sat back in her chair suddenly and fixed her eyes on him, derision still clearly visible in them.

‘Andy, I’ve got cuts to make. And the comms department is, frankly, bloated.’

‘But I’m the most senior person in comms. I—’

Dawn swivelled round to face the window, training her gaze on Michael, the seagull absent from his manhood now. ‘Perhaps we need some young blood, new ideas, people who will think more laterally, challenge convention.’ She swung back to face him.

The document sat untouched on the table between them. He retrieved it decisively, using it to gesticulate as he ransacked his mind for the right words. He glanced briefly at the sculpture outside the window, taking momentary heart from the man’s bold and certain stance. ‘And that is what you will get from me, Dawn. I’ll use this… as a platform for change.’

‘There will plenty of that to come, Andy.’

He nodded, marching out of the door, unsure what had just happened, but galvanised all the same.

Dawn scrolled down the Kernow Click news site, her contorted features lit by the ghostly bright light of the screen as she scanned Dave White’s letter. Then she started again, her finger stabbing at the air as she did so, as if popping each word like a bubble.

She had never liked Dave. Apart from his over-enthusiastic penchant for the ladies, exacerbated by a deluded sense of his own attractiveness, he had always been one to question everything, to resist any change instinctively, and to try and cause constant low-level unrest among the staff. She remembered him cornering her at a drinks evening for the opening of the new film centre, telling her that not conforming for conforming’s sake was healthy, adding, ‘When you stop looking, listening and asking questions, it’s time to die.’

She had asked him to consider if such curiosity could actually be a cause of death, before attempting to drain her already empty glass of wine and disappear into the throng, her loud laughter prompting others to look at her, then at him, before politely turning away.

His letter certainly bore all the hallmarks of his arrogant and vociferous Northern manner. It claimed that he had been forced out, his hands tied, and that he was simply the tip of the iceberg with all the problems mounting at Poltowan University:

I am not the first experienced and respected member of staff to be booted out overnight, told to go quietly or else, and I won’t be the last. There is a culture of fear and loathing at Poltowan and few will be brave enough to speak out about it. For some unfathomable reason, Dawn Goldberg has the board eating out of her hand, no questions asked, and this rotten state of affairs will continue until someone stands up to her. She might be ticking all the right boxes now but she will bring the university to its knees given time.

Dawn read on, the chunky rings on the fingers of her right hand rapping against her mahogany desk as she scrolled down. The truth was, Dave had dug his own grave by constantly challenging her pay and expenses instead of getting on with his own job. Leading the protest against lecturers’ 1.5 per cent pay rise by comparing it to her 12 per cent rise was, frankly, infantile.

‘I’m the bloody Chief Executive of this business,’ said Dawn out loud, as she had at the time. ‘My pay is commensurate with the responsibility I bear – get over it.’

Dave White’s blatant attempts to fuel the disquiet of the students, urging them to rally against the rumour that their numbers would soon be increased, had been the last straw for Dawn. She had paid Celia, her friend Diane’s leggy daughter, handsomely to execute a honey trap, contriving to snap him sharing a tipsy snog with the girl while leaving a bar before threatening to tell his wife. He had resigned quietly, and his desk had been cleared before nine the next day. Dawn wondered why he felt he could start voicing his opinions now – she didn’t, after all, have a short memory.

‘Imbecile,’ she said out loud as she read the final paragraph attacking her recent pay rise. ‘I thought you might regurgitate that tired old chestnut. How predictable.’

She swivelled around in her chair, her eyes meeting Michael’s. ‘Well, he has finally exposed himself for the cretin that he is. And I was forgiving enough to give him a reference, for God’s sake! Bloody delinquent. No one will believe that bilge.’

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.