Strange IndiaStrange India

“So, it looks like yours starts with King Lear on chromosome 1,” Jack said, his eyes scanning the screen in the dimly lit consulting room. Magnolia paint and faded Impressionist prints adorned the walls. Outside, through the leaded windows, street lights cast shadows over the faded grandeur of a Victorian terrace, the nocturnal stillness interrupted only by the occasional drone of a passing car.

“Yeah, that sounds about right.” I tried, unsuccessfully, to settle myself into an office chair.

“What was so urgent anyway? I’m really not supposed to sequence someone out of hours like this.”

“I know, and I appreciate it. The thing is, I’m looking for my inheritance.”

There was a pause as Jack took this in.

“I’m so sorry, Ernie, when did it happen?”

“Last week. The funeral was small, only family.” I shifted uncomfortably again.

Jack had known Dad well when we were younger. He had also been much more of a bookworm than me and had read all of Dad’s stories, which was more than I could say. I’d always suspected that I had been edited in the hope it would inspire me to follow a literary path. So much for that.

“Well, anything I can do to help …”

I finally found a part of the seat that wasn’t seemingly designed for torture alone. Jack cleared his throat.

“You had the ‘Literary Greats’ package, right? Shakespeare, Wilde, Bronte, Austen? I really don’t know why anyone got on board with this fad, you’re quite the relic you know.”

“You say that, but there were lots of us at the time; the fertility industry really made their money off that one.”

“Well, it’s certainly all in here, or what’s left of it anyway. There’s a frameshift that cuts off Hamlet mid-flow, absolute gibberish after that I’m afraid.”

Thanks to some expensive, well intentioned, but ultimately pointless pre-implantation gene editing, I carry a wealth of acclaimed works of fiction in non-coding DNA. A ‘Living Library of Alexandria’, an idea that must have appealed to Dad. Of course, what the sales team failed to mention to my parents and thousands like them is that a lifetime of mutations eventually mangle your chosen library through a combination of missense and nosense into utter nonsense. ‘Oh, wherefore art thou Brian?’ really doesn’t have the same poignancy. Maybe the companies didn’t even consider it; I know they definitely weren’t concerned with future generations. My partner had the ‘modern fantasy’ package and when we sequenced our son, we discovered that:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must ride on the back of an intergalactic turtle.’ That’s what virtue signalling gets you, I suppose.

“Did you ever read your whole library through before now?” Jack continued.


There’s nothing quite like the aspirational pressure of a pantheon of literary greats woven into your very being to make you give up before you’ve even started.

“So come on then. Inheritance. What’s going on?”

I placed a locker key on the desk between us. The notches were faded and worn.

“He left me the original manuscripts. Handwritten.”

“What, all of them?”


The next question hung in the air between us unspoken.

“Before I decide anything, I need to find them. All the lawyers gave me was this key. Well, the key and a note.” I read aloud for Jack in an attempt at my father’s baritone:

I left you a clue as to the whereabouts of your inheritance before you were born.

“He was never straightforward was he?” Jack replied with a knowing grin.

“No, and I can only think he must mean this. I wasn’t ever planning on reading through the whole collection, but if it helps me find those originals, then I will.”

“Maybe that’s what he really wanted …”

I sighed. “Maybe, but it’s a big library and I don’t have time on my side.”

There was writing on both sides of the scrap of paper I’d been handed at the will reading. I smoothed it out on the desk between us. Dad’s tiny and precise handwriting looked back.

If I died a young man, you’ve got a good chance, if not then … tick tock.

I looked over at Jack and saw that the blur of letters reflected in his glasses from the computer monitor had stopped moving. He’d seen something.

“OK, there is one unusual thing about this library,” he began. “It stops on 16. Nothing at all; no novels, soliloquies or sonnets. Except for one sentence.”

“Go on.” The key was back in my pocket, I was gripping it far too tight and could feel the ache on my palm. Jack was looking kindly at me now.

“You know what, I’ll tell you if you agree to maybe think about reading a few of them?”

“Come on, what does it say?” I could only begin to imagine the breadcrumb trail Dad might have left for me.

“Ernie, is it possible that he left you more than one clue?” Jack asked as he turned the screen to face me. He’d highlighted the one line of English in the sea of letters.

In a handbag at Victoria station.”

The story behind the story

Table of Contents

David Mathew reveals the inspiration behind Missense, nosense and nonsense.

The decision to focus on the day-to-day realities and frailties of fantastical ideas put into practice was inspired by the works of Terry Pratchett, with the ‘intergalactic turtle’ mentioned in the text being a reference to his Discworld series. The intersection between scientific discovery and consumerism seemed like an ideal starting point for this, and I hoped that the idea of ‘literary gene editing’ would appeal to the human instinct to preserve a legacy, such that it might have some mass-market appeal (at least initially) while providing ample opportunity for silliness. I also set myself the challenge of providing a ‘reveal’ at the end of the story that had been hinted at earlier in the text, in the confines of a 950-word limit.

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