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 four.

To read chapter one click here.

To read chapter two click here.

To read chapter three click here.


Harry loped slowly through the park on his way to his office, squinting into the high winter sunshine through his broken glasses. He was unusually oblivious to the day’s charms: not hearing the rise and fall of the blackbirds’ trill, not seeing the brave, nodding daffodils emerging prematurely into the January dawn, unaware of the presence of another person hurrying behind him, his heavy trainer-clad feet quickly gaining ground.

Harry was entangled in a trying medley of thoughts from which he couldn’t break free. At the very second the hand was clapped firmly down on his shoulder he was ruminating over how Dawn Goldberg had come to have so much self-confidence, frowning at her brashness and wondering why she had so many people in her thrall.

At the touch of Ludo’s hand Harry spun round, instinctively raising his right arm, fist clenched, heart hammering hard within his ribcage.

‘Fella, calm yourself. It’s me. I’ve been calling you from over there.’

Harry stopped walking, shaking his head at Ludo and drawing a deep breath.

Despite Harry’s not inconsiderable height, Ludo was two inches taller than him, his thickset frame and mop of blond curls lending him a commanding presence.

‘You OK? You seem a bit jumpy.’ Ludo placed his arm back on Harry’s, this time cautiously, as if ready to defend himself against a blow. ‘Is that a shiner you got there? Harry Manchester, have you been fighting?’

He took another steadying breath and cleared his throat. ‘Not quite. I was jumped a couple of days ago. They nicked my wallet.’

A look of genuine concern crept over the younger man's face. ‘I had no clue. Are you OK? If I’m honest, I thought you were looking a little ropy, limping along.’

‘Stiff knee. Fell on my kneecap – bang – then they kicked me a couple of times.’

‘And a punch in the face?’ Ludo held his finger an inch from Harry’s face, tracing it around the outline of a yellow-tinged bruise.

‘Knocked my glasses as I fell.’

Ludo tried to scrutinise Harry as they walked but he kept his head down, embarrassed by the attention. He had lain awake all night, anger rising within him that he hadn’t reacted quicker, been more aware, struck out in self-defence. He kept replaying the incident in his mind.

He had been so submerged in thoughts of his TV appearance, so self-congratulatory about the way he had countered Jenny Trundle’s barbed comments, that common sense had deserted him. Ludo’s almost palpable pity irked him further and he steeled himself for more such remarks as the day wore on. Harry lengthened his stride, bracing himself against the persistent pain in his knee.

He and Ludo continued together through the park, weaving in and out of the chill canopy of trees until they were shielded from the unforgiving glare of the sun. Harry strode more purposefully now, his suit lending him an industrious, businesslike air, while Ludo galumphed alongside, each stride covering more ground than seemed humanly possible, his low-slung jeans revealing the bright yellow waistband of his boxer shorts as he moved.

‘Time for a quick coffee?’

Harry looked at his Rolex. On the underside was the inscription: “All my love, Sylvia x”.

He had not looked at the words lately, although he was all too mindful that they were there, a twenty-eight-year-old message pressed against his flesh. He had some time ago considered the irony of the watch’s longevity, the message on the underside as neatly engraved as if it was done yesterday, the watch’s bold face barely aged but for a couple of everyday battle scars.

Its ticking endured, continuing to stand the test of time in the way their marriage had failed to do. How he wished he could help Sylvia recapture that all too fleeting lightness of soul now, help to drag her from the mire of despair and into the sunny morning, but he knew from years of gentle cajoling, earnest beseeching and everything in between, that only she could save herself. His leaving had been an act of weary resignation, of desperation. And then he had met Jo.

‘Just a quick one?’ Ludo repeated in his soft Irish lilt.

All at once Harry could almost taste the cappuccino, its rich flavour filling his mouth and energising him from the feet up, firing him for the crusade that lay ahead. He wriggled himself partially free from the clutches of irascibility and clapped Ludo on the shoulder in a show of positivity that took even himself by surprise. Caffeine was exactly what he needed.

‘I need to pick your brains as it happens. Let’s do it. My treat.’

Ludo protested in a half-hearted way but was cheered by the thought of a free coffee and Harry’s company, and he knew Harry would be affronted if he, an impoverished student, even made to get his wallet out. Besides, he had spent nearly half an hour fixing Harry’s iPhone the week before, expertise for which he could normally command a respectable sum. Harry meanwhile remembered that he didn’t have a wallet, or any cards, just a £10 note he had borrowed from Jo that morning. He was sure Ted would put it on the tab.

Cappuccin–oh! was typically busy, its seven irregular tables and chairs variously populated with a mix of chatty students and lone workers, tapping away at laptops as the coffee machine hissed violently away in the background. Cappucin–oh! was situated on the hilly spine that ran between Poltowan’s town and park, and while it was often frequented by takeaway customers on hot summer days, when people flocked to the beach a twenty-five-minute walk away, it thrived in the frequently inclement weather, providing a cosy sanctuary away from the unpredictable Cornish elements.

Ted tightened his neatly ironed barista apron and gestured at Harry to sit down, raising his eyebrows in acknowledgement of his usual order and winking at him. Harry thought he mouthed ‘Great stuff’ but couldn't be sure.

‘I’ve a bone to pick with you.’ Harry placed his iPhone on the table in front of Ludo.

‘This wouldn’t be about your performance on News Time the other night, would it? Gee, I’m sorry, fella. Are you telling me that feckin’ mute button is playing up again?’

‘I could have looked a right prat.’

‘Not at all, you dealt with it well. Very well as it happens.’

Ludo frowned at the device, flicking through screens and pushing buttons one-fingered as Harry looked on.

Ludo’s mouth twitched involuntarily at the recollection of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ resounding from Harry’s nether regions. At the time Ludo had rolled on the floor laughing, his abdominal muscles aching for respite, tears rolling down his face as he pushed the rewind button and played it over and over. But now he felt chastened. Harry was one of the good guys. It offended Ludo that someone could have considered it acceptable to make an unprovoked attack on him.

Now he sat solemn-faced, eyes trained on the iPhone, focused on the task in hand, genuinely baffled as to why the problem had occurred. Harry waited, watching in awe as Ludo’s agile thumb navigated the screen with the dexterity of a human joystick.

‘You were ace, Harry. Ace,’ said Ted, putting two steaming cups on the table. He placed his fingertips on Harry’s back. ‘Very well done.’

Harry adjusted his tie. ‘Thanks, Ted. It went OK. Not that I haven’t still got work to do – I’ve picked up two messages this morning from people wanting to know if I’ll let their houses for them. One even went to the trouble of saying what a fantastic time it was to “cash in on the student boom”. If he calls again, I'll have trouble keeping my mouth shut.’

‘What have you done to yourself?’ Ted stood back from Harry in dramatic fashion, arms held wide. ‘That eye, Harry. What happened?’

Ludo glanced up from Harry’s iPhone. ‘He doesn’t want to talk about it, Ted. Got jumped so he did. Nasty business. Poor fella. He needs his coffee this morning, that’s for sure.’

Harry shot a warning look at Ludo before rolling his eyes. ‘If anyone asks, I did it kick boxing.’

Ted’s eyes widened momentarily. He tapped his nose and moved away to serve the growing queue of people, some casting sly glances in Harry’s direction. He paused midway and called back, ‘But it was a dominant performance last night. Coffee’s on the house.’

Ludo slid the iPhone back across the table towards Harry and uncrossed and recrossed his long legs before speaking.

‘So I’m sitting there, watching you on the big screen, thinking: how can I help Harry? How can I help Harry’s campaign? I mean, we have to keep the cap, right? It’s no good for you, for the locals – hell, or for us students, that’s for sure – if it's raised. In fact, from where I’m sitting, I’m pretty hard pushed to see how it helps anyone except The Goldburger and a bunch of greedy landlords.’

Harry was suddenly buoyed by Ludo’s genuine enthusiasm. He looked him in the eye a moment to check for traces of irony, but found none. Two earnest green eyes were looking back at him, eyebrows slightly furrowed under Ludo's unruly thatch of curls.

This was just what Harry needed. A student champion to galvanise the others into action, to engage them with the cause and encourage them to stand up and be counted. He dribbled coffee very slightly in his eagerness to speak.

'You certainly can help,’ he said, dabbing at his chin. ‘If you’re serious, you could be a huge boon to the campaign. In fact – ’ Harry leaned forward ‘ – you already have been. Keep the Cap is exactly the slogan we need: simple, punchy, meaningful. And it will fit neatly on a placard.’

Ludo took Harry’s hand and shook it with an enthusiasm that took him by surprise. ‘Well, I’ve been thinking,’ said Ludo, the words issuing from his mouth at the same rate at which they were forming in his brain. It was one of his strengths – his mind worked with impressive speed, processing and interrogating information while many people would still be absorbing the words.

It was why Harry had commandeered him as his IT specialist, calling on him to address any digital conundrums that couldn’t be fixed by simply switching a device on and off. It took just minutes for Ludo's dexterous brain, and equally dexterous fingers, to overcome the frequent and impenetrable challenges posed by technology. He was well worth a bit of cash in hand here and there.

He had even persuaded Harry to create a Facebook page for his estate agency, convincing him that it was a perfect platform for the business – and its owner. Harry’s initial reluctance had been quickly overcome by Ludo’s blandishments and he had recently begun to see the merit in it, although he remained baffled by the mass of vapid nonsense shared on the site and refused to be drawn into it. He was a busy man, after all.

‘Facebook,’ Ludo continued. ‘It’s the perfect medium to muster the troops. Have you, for example…’ he began flicking through his own mobile screen as he spoke ‘… seen the response to your TV appearance?’ He turned the screen around to show Harry, who peered over his glasses at it.

Ludo proceeded to read out the stats – the fifty-eight people who had liked, loved and laughed over his TV appearance, as well as those who had been inspired to post messages of support, and those who were simply amused by his musical faux-pas.

‘That damn’ phone thing—’ said Harry, starting to wonder if he hadn’t handled it as well as he had thought; if the comic incident would overshadow the important messages he had tried to impart.

Ludo fell silent as he began to read a string of comments further down. Jo McCloud had made reference to her “hero” in one of her responses to a friend, before attacking the “cowardly bastards” who “had it in for Harry” the night before. The ensuing wave of curiosity – masked mainly as concern – had prompted her to write, “Aww, thanks, all. He is just battered and bruised but it could have been worse!!!”

Careless, thought Ludo, twitching. Harry’s bird had been careless. Why didn’t people think before they shared intimate details with the world? Facebook was a platform that required an almost anal level of care, yet people increasingly broadcast their whole lives over it, impetuously sending their innermost thoughts out into the universe in the hope of… what? A sea of equally meaningless and banal replies.

Ludo flicked over the comment and continued to the numerous posts about Harry’s lively TV appearance.

‘So you turn it to your advantage, Harry,’ said Ludo, as if stating the obvious. Once again his brain was whirring, giving birth to multiple ideas in quick succession, the resulting notions seamlessly articulated.

‘Look at this one. She calls herself Rockstr.’ Ludo rolled the r with relish. ‘Clearly a student-cum-aspiring musician.’ He paused, zooming in on her picture: the wild blonde hair with red streaks, the nose stud, the large brown eyes, the petite, curvy figure photographed against a sandy backdrop. An unsettling feebleness suddenly flooded his body, interrupting his usual poise and making his mind swim.

Harry waited, drumming his fingers on the table, struggling to summon his patience as he waited for his adviser's train of thought to materialise. He watched as Ludo’s eyes widened, Adam’s apple bobbing wildly in his stubbly throat, eyes trained on his mobile screen.

‘And?’ said Harry.

Ludo recruited the synapses in his brain again, forcing his gaze away from the picture to the words below:

Way to go, Harry Manchester, love that you plugged the legendary Freddie Mercury and caught that sly presenter off guard! Agree with all you said – Goldberg has her head up her arse and is driving Poltowan and its uni into the ground. Something needs to be done!

Harry straightened in his seat, screwing up his nose to nudge his glasses a little higher. Ludo stabbed a button requesting to befriend Rockstr, before slipping the phone back into his jeans pocket.

‘You see what has happened here? You have engaged with the youth. They get you. They see that you’re human – you’re like them. Not the most polished performance but you’re authentic. You are articulating their thoughts, but you have the power, the experience, the local standing, they lack. We need to harness this.’

Harry leaned backwards, tilting his chair onto the back two legs and rocking several times before a sharp pain in his knee forced him forward with a jolt. He steepled his hands on the table. ‘Ludo, gird – your – loins.’

Ludo was unaware that his leg left was jigging up and down under the table, the two coffee cups vibrating with the repetitive movement. His loins were now well and truly girded, and not just as a result of Harry’s nascent campaign. He sensed that he was teetering on the summit of real purpose, something he had been seeking since his arrival in Poltowan. He was going to make a difference, put the mind his mother had always described as “overactive” to good use. He was going to save his university, and this town to boot. He and Harry Manchester were an unstoppable force, and Dawn Goldberg would be foolish to try.

‘Oh, and tonight if you’re free, there’s a meeting at the Church Hall,’ said Harry.

Ludo stared back at him, mentally trying to locate such a place.

‘It’s in the street directly behind the big church. In the square.’

‘Ah.’ Ludo recalled the church, of course, with its looming clock tower watching over the people of Poltowan. ‘I’m supposed to have five-a-side but what time is it? I’ll try and get there, bring some of the boys.’

‘Seven o’clock. It’s just to raise awareness and inform people, get the conversation going.’

Ludo nodded. ‘One thing though, Harry,’ he said as they stood to leave. ‘Your girl has been a bit of a flute.’

‘A flute?’

‘She’s kind of gone and lost her head on Facebook, made some indiscreet comment about you being her hero.’

Harry rubbed his chin, considering whether the term was a worthy one. Perhaps it was a little premature.

‘She’s told people you were attacked is what I’m kind of saying. It’s not necessarily the best strategy here, we’d have done better to keep it quiet.’

The realisation hit Harry like another kick in the stomach. ‘She’s said what?’

Harry pulled his phone out of his pocket, only for Ludo to take his wrist and stop him. ‘No need, Harry. She’s not said much but… have a word, will you? See if you can’t get her to lay off the oversharing for a bit.’

Harry nodded. He was beginning to see that Ludo had his finger on the pulse when it came to social media. As he left the cafe, he recalled the words of Theodore Roosevelt, albeit a little sketchily: ‘The best leader is the one who has enough sense to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.’ When it came to technology and social media, he was happy to take the same approach.

Harry stepped outside the coffee shop and was about to call Jo when his mobile alerted him to a voicemail. It was Dennis Flintoff, asking after Harry following his “trouble” and suggesting they ought to catch up. Harry bristled slightly and inwardly cursed Jo. He knew she would have meant well but, not for the first time, eagerness to talk had got the better of her.

Harry called Dennis several times that morning but was each time met with the almost magisterial tones of his voicemail, politely but firmly instructing him to leave a short message. Harry deemed the subject matter too delicate to commit to the intangible vaults of a mobile device, instead clicking off in frustration each time he received the greeting.

He picked up his jacket and attempted to sweep out of the office, once again forgetting the limitations of his injured leg, which forced him into an ungainly limp as he crossed the floor. He was just stepping out when Diggory appeared, ambling past with his hands in his pockets. He paused, grinning at Harry.

‘I thought you’d be up at the BBC doing The One Show or something by now?’

They shook hands. ‘You’re a funny guy, Diggory,’ said Harry. ‘How’s things?’

Diggory took a step back, frowning. ‘What have you done to yourself?’

‘Mugged. In Plymouth. After last night’s recording.’ Harry removed his glasses and tentatively rubbed his nose.

‘Oh, mate. What’s the damage?’

‘Lost wallet, broken nose, gammy leg… think that’s all.’

Diggory scrutinised Harry’s nose. ‘Broken?’

‘Probably not. Just feels like it.’

‘Did they get the guy who did it?’

Harry shuffled closer to his old friend, dropping his voice. ‘It was a woman actually. A right bruiser, but a woman. Took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t concentrating, just minding my own, then bang from behind.’

Diggory’s jaw dropped as he listened. ‘An even greater insult to injury. What a bitch. And they didn’t get her?’

‘Dunno. I left it with them.’

‘Need to borrow any cash?’

‘You’re alright. I borrowed some from Jo. I’ll get my new cards through tomorrow. I’ll survive.’

The two men stood in silence for a moment.

‘How’s it going with Jo?’

‘She’s great, Dig. Yeah, it’s alright.’

‘I bumped into Sylvia last week.’ Diggory rocked back on his heels, his hands deep in the pockets of his designer jeans. His greying hair was slightly unkempt but he managed to cultivate a year-round tan from surfing most days, and his body remained fit and firm.

In Harry’s eyes he had barely changed since they were at school – always in possession of a quiet composure, always adopting new trends effortlessly with Harry bringing up the rear. They were unlikely allies, their chosen paths having veered in opposing directions. Diggory ran a business building and repairing boats and surfboards, but the overheads on his boat shed were cheap and he had no great drive, preferring instead to be on the water whenever the surf allowed. But despite their disparate lifestyles, their friendship had been easy and constant for forty years and continued to endure.

‘How did she seem?’

‘Said she was OK but, you know, I could tell she was putting on a brave face. She looked tired.’

Harry glanced away. ‘I called in yesterday. Just not sure what I can do.’

‘Not much you can do, mate. Except stay in touch with her, I guess.’

‘Appreciate it if you could keep an eye on her, though, look her up once in a while?’

Diggory nodded. ‘Chloe said she’d call her next week for a coffee. Anyway… take it easy. No more heroics – you’ve got enough of a fight on your hands.’ He made as if to leave and Harry stepped in his way.

‘What did you think? Of last night?’

Diggory whistled through his teeth. ‘Well, I like Queen almost as much as you but, you certainly pick your moments.’

‘Seriously. Come on – what did you think?’

Diggory studied Harry’s blackened eye, his slightly uneven glasses, the earnestness in his face, and a rush of affection rose up from somewhere deep inside, taking him by surprise.

‘Mate, are you sure you want to take this on? I mean, you aren’t just taking that woman on, you’re putting the cat among the pigeons in Poltowan too. Times have changed. I just wonder if you’re fighting a losing battle.’

Harry smiled. Diggory’s apathy was another trait that had not changed since school. He wasn’t lazy, as such, but he was unlikely to engage in anything that met with any resistance, quietly retreating instead to find another way, an easier path.

‘Times have changed too much, pal. Do you want to wake up to a whole road of neglected student lets, not to mention the noise, the rubbish, the constant parties?’

‘Actually, Chlo and I went to a student party up the road last week.’ Diggory laughed. ‘It was great – like being twenty again. And I don’t hear any noise. I’ve usually got my headphones on and I’m never in bed before about two a.m.’

His friend’s easy detachment frequently exasperated Harry, and while he sometimes felt a strong urge to shake him, to provoke some latent emotion to rise to the surface, he envied Diggory's ability to step outside of the fray, to observe rather than to feature. He knew Diggory was the wrong person from whom to seek reassurance or encouragement. But he could rely on his honesty.

‘Just be careful. I mean, you’ve got this place.’ He gestured at the bold Harry Manchester sign above their heads. ‘You’ve worked hard to build this up. Don’t throw it all away for some whimsical cause.’

‘Whimsical? It’s far from whimsical, Dig. Soon Poltowan as we know it will only exist as a fringe community serving the university – serving Dawn Goldberg. We will even lament the loss of the tourists if we’re not careful, much as we often moan about them.’

‘You’ve got to take your hat off to her drive and ambition – she certainly seems to know how to get whatever she wants.’

‘But only to line her own pockets, to embellish her own CV. She doesn’t give a toss about Poltowan. She doesn’t even live here - she’s holed up in some swanky pad twenty miles away! A converted farmstead of some sort, out in the sticks.’

‘She’s a bit of alright, though, isn’t she?’ said Diggory. ‘I mean, she has something about her—’ He waited for Harry’s explosive rant to gather pace, knowing he had pushed the right buttons to trigger a lengthy diatribe, widening his stance as if in readiness to physically absorb the attack.

As Harry opened his mouth to speak, a lady with a toddler and a pram paused next to him, her head cocked slightly to one side. She was softly spoken, her voice melodious. ‘I just wanted to say – and sorry to interrupt – that I’m so glad you are doing what you are doing.’

Her toddler squirmed away from her and she grabbed his arm, prompting a squeal. ‘I absolutely agree with your concerns about more students. I want my kids to grow up here, I want to keep my family home here. If they lift the cap, I can’t see any way we could stay. So thank you for doing what you’re doing and speaking out. It’s very brave.’

Harry smiled, her words acting as a balm to his ruffled feelings. He thanked her for her support, seeing her glance at his black eye as she spoke, before hurrying on with her whining child. Harry raised his eyebrows at Diggory.

‘Brave, you see,’ said his friend. ‘She said “brave” but she might as well have said “foolhardy”. You’re putting yourself at odds with other traders, some of whom have been here as long as you have.’

Harry eyed him for a moment. ‘Am I at odds with you?’

Diggory looked away. He knew that trying to remonstrate with Harry would only increase his obstinacy, forcing him further down the wrong road. ‘Well, you know, sometimes you have to go with it. Ride it.’

‘That theory might work when you’re surfing but it won’t in real life.’ Harry shook his head. ‘Where’s your fight? There are times when you have to stand up and defend what you care about.’ He projected the final sentence more loudly than he had intended, a surge of Churchillian spirit rising up within him. Across the square, the clock tower struck eleven.

The boyish smile returned to Diggory’s face. He saw Harry's scowl, and held up his hands as if in surrender. ‘I admire it, Harry, I do. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’ He nodded towards the shop front. ‘Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.’

They parted with the barely audible murmur only old friends understand.

Diggory’s unabashed scepticism served to fuel Harry’s determination. He would show him, and any other doubters, that he could effect change. Ride it indeed, he thought, shaking his head as he made his way to his car.

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.