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 five.

Read chapter one here.

Read chapter two here.

Read chapter three here.

Read chapter four here.


Harry had braced himself for the comments about his black – and fast-yellowing – eye, and his limp. It was unfortunate timing, of course, to turn up to a key meeting looking like a thug, but he had planned the event some weeks before as the climax to a month’s leafleting and door knocking, with the intention of capitalising on the frenzy he had whipped up. The invitation to appear on News Time had at first appeared fortuitous, falling the night before the meeting, and he had decided that, black eye aside, the gathering still presented a timely opportunity, particularly given Dawn Goldberg’s sudden announcement. It was news that would surely swell the audience, perhaps persuade the undecided to turn out.

Harry estimated in excess of two hundred faces as he stood at the front on his makeshift platform, waiting for Bob Chase to close the huge doors at the back of the hall. Ludo had dashed in at the last moment looking sweaty and athletic, his pale sinewy legs exposed to the January air. He had brought with him a group of similarly dishevelled student mates, who looked far less enthusiastic about being there. Harry smiled at his young friend’s powers of persuasion.

He was pleased to see a number of people grasping copies of the leaflet he had spent most evenings and weekends delivering over the past few weeks. ‘Local Houses for Local People’ seemed to have chimed with residents, and he was emboldened by the fact that the words he had spent several hours writing, had not only been read, but were being kept for reference.

Jo sat in the front row beaming at him. She was flanked by two work colleagues who both lived in the town. Jo widened her eyes at Harry, looking as delighted and eager as if she were at the Old Vic for a first night. Harry thought how effortlessly stylish she looked, how attractive. He stood a little taller.

Harry quickly got into his stride, speaking fluently and engagingly about how the town had changed since the university had opened five years ago. He was keen to stress the benefits of the institution: supporting local businesses, boosting the economy, creating jobs and putting Poltowan on the map.

‘But there is an uglier, more worrying side to this change,’ he said, pausing for dramatic effect. A collective exhalation laced with fear and trepidation emanated from the audience.

‘A town like this can only support so many people – a finite number – if everyone is to live in harmony, side by side, and a happy equilibrium is to be maintained.’

He laid his notes down on the table and lurched off the platform, only realising as he did so that this was an imprudent move since he would struggle to step up again unassisted. He moved quickly on, talking from the heart, his bullet points forgotten, his large frame owning the small space at the front of the church hall, his voice commanding, his left eye sparkling with enough passion to distract from his swollen and discoloured right eye.

‘But the balance has tipped too far, and as many of you will have seen or heard, Dawn Goldberg’s proposal to lift the cap on numbers and increase the student population here by fifty per cent – or three thousand in real terms – poses a threat to many of us who have made our lives here.’

When Dawn Goldberg’s name was mentioned there were growls and hisses not unlike those used to greet a pantomime villain, followed by an outbreak of muttering.

Harry paused. ‘I know that the sheer number of students, coupled with the lack of accommodation provided on campus, is already causing problems for many local people.’

He gazed over at his notes on the platform and thought better of trying to retrieve them. Instead he counted out on his fingers as he spoke. He knew there were five key points he wanted to state. ‘House prices are going up as stock diminishes, with private landlords buying up properties to rent to multiple students; these houses are frequently falling into disrepair as neither students nor landlords feel themselves accountable for their upkeep; noise is keeping working people and their families awake through the night as students return from pubs and clubs, or hold all- night parties; a number of well-used bus routes and timetables have been changed to favour the university; and—’

Harry made his way across the floor, head bowed as if waiting for people to absorb the impact of his words. In truth he was desperately trying to remember his fifth point. Jo’s shiny patent boots came into his line of sight as he pondered, triggering a memory. ‘And shops and local businesses are changing, gearing up, not to the needs of locals, but to students. In the last twelve months alone we have seen a popular wool shop become a tattoo parlour; a renowned restaurant turned into a late-night shots bar; and a greengrocer's become a mobile phone shop.’

‘Are you saying it’s only students who have tattoos and mobile phones?’

It took Harry a moment to locate this voice before realising it belonged to Steve Kent, his bulldog features easily recognisable under his shaved head as he stared at Harry from the back of the room. Steve ran the local general store and had done for some years after making the unlikely move to Poltowan from Peckham. Belligerence was his natural state. While Harry was familiar with him, he often gave him a wide berth.

‘Hello, Steve. Thanks for coming.’

‘Lighten up, can't you? Students ain’t the only ones inking up and enjoying the latest technology – it’s the way of the world now. Get over it.’

Harry inwardly counted to three before answering. ‘I am certainly not suggesting that students have a monopoly on tattoos and mobile phones.’

‘Well, it sounded like that to me!’

Someone laughed and Harry spotted Kevin Teague, owner of a carpet-cleaning business, sitting just along from Steve. He was grinning at Harry.

‘My point is that these new… amenities have arrived at the expense of arguably far more useful outlets – ’

‘Like a knittin’ shop?’ said Steve. ‘I’ve ’eard it all now.’

‘ – far more useful outlets that have a greater contribution to make to the lives of residents of Poltowan. Now—’

Harry happened to catch Jo’s eye; her earlier enthusiasm had been replaced by a look of alarm. Had he been wrongfooted? ‘Now, if we took a quick and very unscientific poll among the hundred and fifty or so people in this room, of which I think we have a handful of students…?’ Harry raised his eyebrows as he searched the room.

‘Ten of us, I think, Harry,’ said Ludo.

‘… so ten students. Please can people raise their arms – inked or otherwise – if they have a tattoo?’

Six of the students raised their pale arms skywards while Ludo stood up, revealing a star-shaped marking halfway up his lean thigh. Two women in the row in front twisted round to see what the fuss was about and one lady further along emitted an appreciative noise.

‘Thank you, Ludo, we don’t necessarily need to see the tattoos in question.’

Another hand was raised in the middle of the audience. It belonged to Jack Rowe, who was a few years past seventy. He looked startled when Harry’s eyes rested on him. ‘I was in the Navy when I had it – stupidest thing I ever did,’ he said, by way of explanation.

The audience murmured.

‘Mine’s on my thigh too but I’d have to take me trousers down,’ said Steve, his burly arm thrust into the air.

‘That won’t be necessary.’ Harry waved his hand again to silence people. ‘So, sixty per cent of the students present this evening are sporting tattoos, compared to less than two percent of non-students. Anecdotal, I know, but I would suggest it gives us a good idea of how student needs differ from those of other residents.’

Steve shook his head in disgust. Harry continued talking, while just in front of him Jo beamed at her colleague.

‘I am not, of course, saying we shouldn’t cater for existing students, but if this means long-standing residents start to lose essential services and conveniences, we have a problem. And, ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that we are currently only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

‘It is down to us to make our voices heard, to spread the word, to lobby local Councillors and ensure that Poltowan remains a wonderful place to live – for both residents and students – but that the population numbers stay as they are so that we maintain the balance that is essential for us all to thrive.’

Harry didn’t attempt to silence the keen applause that followed. He looked at Jo and nodded hopefully towards his notes. She jumped up and took his elbow, placing her ear close to his mouth before passing him his sheets of paper together with a squeeze of his bicep.

Just as the clapping began to peter out, Harry became aware of unusually persistent applause towards the back of the room, a slow, loud slapping noise that superseded the polite patter that had now died away. Harry saw Steve’s smug face looking at him as his hands came together with a thunderous sound, again and again. The rest of the audience turned to look at him but he kept his gaze fixed on Harry, undaunted by the eyes boring into him. Eventually the ironic clapping stopped.

‘Thank you. Now, if I can open the floor to questions, as I’m sure you all—’

Steve’s hand shot up at the same time as he declared, ‘Yes, I ’ave one.’

Harry paused, drawing on his patience. ‘Yes, Steve?’

‘I want to know what gives you the right to push these things through people’s doors, littering our ’ouses?’ He balled up a leaflet as he spoke before letting it fall to the floor. ‘Standing up there, shoving your opinions down people’s throats, when it’s a free world and everyone has the right to make their own mind up.’ He wriggled back in his seat, a self-satisfied smile on his face.

Silence fell over the hall as all eyes turned to the front. Jo rummaged in her pocket for a tissue, her gaze trained on Harry.

‘That is a fair question,’ he said, wincing as a jolt of pain travelled from his bruised eye to the back of his head. ‘Steve, as many of you probably know, owns the general store in the square.’

‘’Ave done for fifteen years,’ he interjected. ‘Business has never been better.’

‘I’m a local businessman too,’ said Harry soberly. ‘I care deeply about this town and its future—’

‘What’s to say I don’t? I ’ave seen an upturn in trade since the university opened, it fair saved me from going down the plug ’ole, and many other local businesses will tell you the same thing.’ He stood up, his face slightly flushed. ‘I know you’ll be quick to get on your ’igh ’orse and tell me I’m an emmet in your speak, a DFL. Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve given a lot to this town, and I’ve made it my ’ome, created a business ’ere, and I put back into the economy too. I ’ave every right to speak up.’

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, willing Steve’s voice to stop. People began tutting in the audience and shifting in their seats. ‘Thank you, Steve. As I was saying, I care deeply about this town. I was born and brought up here—’

‘There, you see? Always ’avin’ a go.’

‘—and I feel a responsibility to help spread the word, give people here a voice.’

Steve worked his mouth soundlessly for a moment, as if chewing an invisible match.

‘Surely you have a vested interest though,’ came another voice, from a lady Harry didn’t know. ‘I mean, you run an estate agency and you need availability of housing stock – that’s your product, without which you can’t run your business.’

‘’Xactly,’ said Steve, leaning forward to see the speaker and repeatedly nodding his bald head as if she had just articulated the sentiment he had intended to convey with his earlier words.

‘So people could be forgiven for thinking that you are scaremongering and jeopardising real economic progress in order to safeguard Harry Manchester.’

Harry stepped sideways, getting the speaker in his sights. ‘Thank you. And, sorry, would you mind introducing yourself, madam?’

‘I’m Stella Maycroft. I’ve lived here for five years… since the university first opened actually.’ She hesitated, taking in the curious faces around her. ‘I don’t work as I suffer from a chronic health condition. But I love the life and energy the students bring to the town, and I welcome what they add. Surely it’s better than a bunch of old folk in a sleepy, dying community?’

A small chorus of voices murmured agreement, followed by Steve shouting: ‘At last someone's speaking sense.’

‘Thank you, Stella. I take your point, and people may construe my campaign as one driven by commercial concerns, but I can do no more at this stage than reassure you that this is not about my business. One key point that I hope will help to convince you of my motivation is the fact that Harry Manchester’s only deals with sales and purchase – not rentals, and not sales to private landlords. I can assure you that, as a businessman, if I were driven primarily by money, I would’ve opened a lettings arm some years ago, when the university opened.’

A murmur of approval rippled through the crowd. ‘But I don’t believe in it,’ continued Harry, raising his voice. ‘I am a man of principle, and I can see for myself that student lets are damaging the very fabric of our society – pushing house prices up, driving residents out and resulting in whole roads of once sought-after houses falling into disrepair.’

A woman stood up, her hand raised for good measure. ‘No disrespect to the individuals here tonight, but I don’t understand why students have attended this meeting. This is the residents’ fight, right? It’s about us, the long-term residents of Poltowan.’

Harry limped across the front of the hall. ‘Mrs Collins, hello. I’m very glad indeed that you have raised that point because I think it’s a common misconception. Our student friends here tonight,’ Harry gestured at Ludo and his cohort, lounging at the back of the audience, ‘stand alongside us in wishing to prevent an increase in student numbers. This isn’t about students versus residents. It’s about what is best for Poltowan. Ludo, perhaps you’d like to…’

Ludo shot to his feet, his gangly frame looking boyish in his football shorts, his shin pads drooping out of his socks. ‘Mrs Collins, first, we don’t want to spoil your pretty town – the self-same town that attracted us here in the first place.’

Mrs Collins frowned at him, distrusting his unfamiliar brogue.

‘Secondly, we didn’t pay a shed load of money to come to a university that was bursting at the seams with people – we were offered a boutique experience if I remember rightly. We all need a bed to sleep in and a seat in the lecture theatre, both of which are already proving hard to come by with so many students enrolled. It’ll only get worse if The Goldburger gets her way.’

Mrs Collins smoothed her hands over her skirt.

‘And, to be honest, we chose Cornwall as a place to study so we could live alongside good Cornish folk like yourself, to study here but to enjoy all that your rich culture has to offer too. We want to get along with local people, and we understand that can’t happen if you feel we have bowled in and taken over the place. So we stand shoulder to shoulder with you, Mrs Collins, as us Irish say, to stop this crazy expansion.’

Harry cleared his throat before putting the microphone back to his lips. ‘Thank you, Ludo.’

Some of the residents looked around, mirroring each other’s scepticism. ‘There’s got to be more to it,’ whispered one in a loud voice.

‘There’s not really,’ said Ludo, overhearing. ‘I come from a little town in Ireland called Cobh, maybe half the size of Poltowan, and I love that sense of community. It’s important, I get it. Hey, we don’t want to be the enemy here.’

Mrs Collins stared at him a little longer, her eyes travelling over his long frame before resting on his bare, blackened knees.

‘Steve, you ask why I feel I have the right to, as you put it, “shove my opinions down people’s throats”,’ said Harry. ‘Well, I am making it my business to furnish people with the facts, so that they can reach their own conclusions. Dawn Goldberg has well-documented plans to expand the university – to open specialist research buildings and such like – so she is under pressure to increase student numbers in order to fund such ventures. She is very ambitious and no doubt sees it as her legacy. But, ladies and gentlemen, at what cost to other people? I ask you to consider that very carefully: at-what-cost?’

This time thunderous applause broke out and Harry saw Steve Kent and Kevin Teague leaving by the back door, followed by a handful of others. The majority seemed content to linger, including Stella Maycroft, who sat stock still, not clapping but not rushing to escape, as if still processing all that had been said.

Harry tried to flex his knee surreptitiously, a gnawing pain persisting behind the swelling.

‘Wonderful. You were wonderful,’ said Jo, standing on tiptoe to plant a kiss on his cheek.

Harry found himself feeling fleetingly like a war hero at his homecoming as people gathered around, their eyes flicking from his right eye to his left and back again. But his thoughts had begun to drift towards a large G&T, the cucumber garnish curling elegantly and enticingly around the rim of the glass.

Some twenty miles away Dawn Goldberg rang Andy Hornblower, who placed down his fork, gulped his mouthful of salmon, and obediently answered.

‘What news, Hornblower?’

‘Sorry, Dawn?’ He stood up, as if better to address the Vice Chancellor.

‘The meeting… what happened? You did go, didn’t you?’

Andy cleared his throat, wiping a piece of spinach from his plump lips. ‘You did say – we did agree – that it wasn’t necessary for me to go to this meeting Dawn. If you remember—’

‘Remember? I remember very well, thank you. I specifically asked you to go and listen in, gauge the mood.’

‘But you then said not to bother as, I think your words were, “Harry Manchester is full of hot air and the people who go to those sort of things are hardly likely to change the world”.’

Dawn made a strange hissing sound down the mouthpiece. She could not now recall exactly what had been said, although the words did sound vaguely familiar.

‘You didn’t think that, after our major announcement yesterday, it might just be advisable to go along and listen in to hoi-polloi, just in case one of them managed to string a half-coherent sentence together? And to put paid to any misconceptions, quash any false rumours about our intent? No, Hornblower, you obviously did not. Of course, it was too much to ask that you might use your initiative.’

Andy thought for a moment, his jaw sagging. ‘I wonder now if you should have attended, Dawn, given your standing, the respect you command? You’d have had far more clout than—’

‘Me? In a draughty church hall? A woman of my authority? You never cease to amaze me.’

Andy picked at his teeth. ‘I can find out, Dawn. I’ll do some probing.’

‘Oh, you can certainly do some probing, and I think you know where.’ Dawn jabbed at the red button with one long painted fingernail, tossing her phone down on the sofa in disgust.

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.