It would have been 1967 and me and the lads were gathering at the top of the Bridle Path in Darfield, the path that leads by the side of Middlewood Hall towards Houghton Main, the path that generations of pitmen had walked down and back, to and from work at all hours of the day and night. As we gathered, so did the evening gloom; a double-decker passed, full of people off to Barnsley, but we ignored them because we were on a mission.
Dusk felt like the right time for the task we were about to perform, here on a track that felt ancient and somehow full of fable and significance. We were a bit like villagers in a black-and-white 1930s horror film, rushing off to storm the castle where the monster was rampaging. We should have had flaming torches; we didn’t, but one of the lads had his dad’s cig lighter, which he flicked experimentally to make sure it was still working. It was.
We were there to flesh out and verify a rumour, and the rumour was that somewhere down the Bridle Path, a mandrake grew. For somebody like me who read lots of horror stories, a mandrake was a plant of some significance. Legend had it when you pulled up a mandrake, it screamed, and me and the lads were keen to test out that thesis.
Our major problem was that we didn’t really know what a mandrake looked like. Remember that this was 1967, which may as well have been The Dark Ages as far as the distribution of information went. These days, you’d look up a mandrake on the internet, you’d be able to listen to the sound of it screaming and download a video of how to pull one up. We just had a vague collective memory of something one of us had seen on the telly and then to told the rest of us: A mandrake flower looked like a human face. One of the lads also said that on the same telly show it said that the face was that of Jimmy Clitheroe and we were so annoyed that he wasn’t taking the task seriously that we attempted to burn his scarf with the cig lighter.
We began to walk down the path. It was getting really dark and suddenly civilisation, or at least the Darfield part of it, felt a long way away. None of us had thought to bring a torch and the cig lighter was continually flicked. Then the moon came out from behind a cloud and illuminated the scene; the more superstitious of us took this as a sign. The light seemed to concentrate near an apple tree. We gazed at a small plant. Could that be it? It certainly looked a bit spooky. Was that a human face?
“It looks more like Norman Wisdom than Jimmy Clitheroe,” said The Lad Who Wasn’t Taking It Seriously. Before blows could be exchanged a miner emerged on his way home. “You looking for the mandrake?” he said. We nodded. “Tha knows what it does when tha pulls it up? It screams!”
And then he let out the loudest scream I’ve ever heard. We ran away as fast as we could, blubbering with fear. He laughed, and I think I heard the mandrake laughing too.