An electric ripple flowed through the crowd when the woman in the red hat walked into the bookstore. Like my good friend Joseph Heller once said: Something Happened.
Although she stood in line with all the others waiting for me to sign copies of Wormhead, she still seemed to be standing apart. Her looks helped, of course. The face beneath that shocking hat and thick fall of yellow hair was beautiful; the figure beneath the face was, if anything, even better.
Nevertheless, it wasn't so much her good looks that knocked me back in my chair. What hit me hardest was the certain fact that she was a True Believer. It was written all over her.
Obsession delivers its own intensity, its own focus, and every successful writer comes to recognise it sooner or later. Ask John Grisham. Ask Stephen King. Ask me. We'll all tell you the same thing. After a while, it gets so you can smell True Belief the instant it enters a room, and Little Miss Red Hat was True Belief personified. You could see it in her posture, in her walk, in the way she wore her clothes. It was in the fire-flash of her eyes, in the curl of her tongue as it flicked out and tasted the air.
She came closer. I thought I heard panting.
I kept signing books, cracking jokes, writing whatever they asked me to write: 'To Susan and family... to Mary and Mike... kindest regards... Simon Kirkby...'
When Red Hat finally reached my table I stopped. I put down my pen, picked up my glass of water, and took a sip. She waited, watched. I felt the sudden shock of eye contact and dropped my gaze.
Her copy of Wormhead was clamped to her left breast, cupped as lovingly as a woman cradles a suckling infant. I was mesmerised by the yellow serpent printed on the dustjacket, by the way it rippled as it moved with the rhythm of her breath. Cleopatra's asp, rising and falling.
'I adore your books, Mr Kirkby,' she said.
Her voice was low, seductive - as seductive as everything else about her.
'Yes. Believe me, I never lie.'
'No, of course not. I didn't...'
'Especially Wormhead. It informs me. It... speaks to me.'
'And what does it say?'
Without warning she dropped to her knees. People close by backed off. If I hadn't been trapped in my chair, I'd have done the same.
'Who understands like I do? Please, let me...'
She bowed her head and tore off the bright red hat. Shockingly, her mane of yellow hair came with it. I found myself looking at a naked skull - naked except for the writhing grey mass that covered it.
Worms. Dozens of worms, each secured by a bright nail hammered deep into the bone.
She looked up, her eyes blazing.
'Wormhead,' I whispered.
'Yes,' she said, and smiled.
(Winner of The Inscriptions 'Fan' Competition & Published in Inscriptions 47)