In some ways Radium Street Inn was a bit of an "Old School" bar. It's right in the city centre of Manchester. Small. Warm. Wood and leather and brass and muted light. What made it special, apart from the people in it, was the beer. So many different beers. The chalkboard behind the bar listed around 25 different ales, stouts, DIPAs, IPAs, sours, things neither you or I even know about. Session beer that you could drink all day, and kingslayers that would put out your lights after half a pint.
The beer was so good, that even though it was fairly expensive, the bar attracted a decent crowd, young and old, students and professionals. Plenty of what they sold would be more than £10 a pint, except it was so strong they didn't sell it in pints. The last time I went in, there was at least one date, an Asian couple straight out of a catalogue were eating snacks and sipping halves, covering their mouths when they laughed and looking at each other in a way that made me sure they weren't quite a done deal.
I'd been sitting at the bar in there for hours with a mate, trying to work our way through the list, getting steadily pissed, when the Americans walked in. 3 "college students" from Cincinnati. They were looking for something, I forget what, and we knew where it was, we ended up chatting. Food probably, I think they were looking for something specific to eat. They lost the goodwill of my friend and I when one of them remarked, "Look, we're young, rich, white males, politics doesn't affect us, we're always going to come out on top" I'm not going to waste your time with my feelings about that comment, but that's when I turned away and noticed the bloke at the end of the bar.
He was alone, straight backed, with a shaven head like a bullet. He was looking straight ahead as he gulped his beer, then he turned to the young lad behind the bar. I like the people who work at "Rad St.", this young guy is a photography student and he has a sense of humour. The fellow with the bullet head looks like he's never heard or told a joke in his life. He looked pretty average, he didn't look mean exactly, but he looked like he could handle himself. He didn't have an eyepatch or a scar or anything. He just seemed extremely serious for a fairly busy, fairly friendly bar on a Saturday night. He nodded abruptly to Photography Student. "Another. The same". His coins were counted out and stacked in front of him.
A couple of hours later, my friend and I are a bit drunk. Our heads are heavy, it's time for the last pint before the stumble home. Bullet Head is still sitting a few metres away, sipping his beer as my friend and I pause in our slowed down conversation, to drink, or breathe, or think. Bullet Head beckons Photography Student.
"That little box, right in front of me, under the counter on the far side" Bullet Head is now pointing at a little dull-coloured plastic unit fixed so that the two square buttons are pointing at him from the counter under the mirror. I'd been drinking at Rad St. for years and never noticed it.
"Er, yeah?" Photography Student is smiling but looks very slightly weirded out. I assume because Bullet Head seems a bit intense. The lad had probably already been keeping an eye on him.
"My old man used to work with those. That's your panic button for the bar, isn't it?" Bullet Head is smiling faintly.
"Haha! Er, actually, yeah, you're right. It's a panic button" Photography Student is smiling too, with his mouth anyway. I'm keeping Bullet Head in my peripheral vision and listening in, more sober than I was 5 minutes ago. Funny how that works.
"It's an old one, that. That panic button is at least....30 years old"
"Oh, right. Er, yeah, maybe. I don't know"
"I'm not asking you, I'm fucking telling you" Photography Student is definitely nervous now.
The bar still has a few people in it, the night is winding towards last orders, but there's a background buzz. Bullet Head doesn't seem to care who's listening and I feel fully sober now. I'm at least 2 metres away from him, only able to hear him because I'd tuned in. I have a little time to react if I need it. I turn slightly towards Bullet Head and take most of my weight off the chair. My friend happened to be positioned looking across me so he's already facing Bullet Head. I make it look like I'm just trying to sit up a bit more comfortably. "Slightly odd" has shaded into "Tense", I'm waiting for "Threat".
Bullet Head glances at me, but is more focused on the beady eyes of the panic button and the lad behind the bar. He leans in.
"It's no fucking good there, is it? Right where I can see it? I bet it's just for show. I bet it's not even fucking connected."
"Er, it definitely is. I got told about it when I started working here" the lad behind the bar is suddenly more confident.
"Oh. That's good" Bullet Head was smiling like a snake now. "What did they tell you?"
"They said don't press it by accident or the police would come, and they'd be pissed off" The lad seemed to swear because Bullet Head had.
"Well, first of all, I don't think it is connected, so I wouldn't worry about that. And even if it was, if someone came in to rob the place, what would you do?"
"I'd, I'd stand in front of it and press it, I'd hide it behind me" Photography Student stands in front of the panic button with his hands behind his back, sees me looking at him, smiles weakly and looks away back at Bullet Head like a kid who's sure that if he makes the other kid laugh, he won't get his head kicked in.
"Oh, I see. Seems a bit dangerous. That panic button, right where anyone could see it, could fuck you right up. Somebody could sort this place out in ten minutes, if they knew where your panic button is."
"Er, I think I get what you mean, it's not a good place, is it? I never thought about it before"
"I have. I've been sitting here thinking about it while you've been pulling pints. That's no good mate. Because I know it's there now. If I wanted to do this place, and you did that, tried to stand in front of it like you said, and I knew you were going for it. I'd have to do something, just in case it was connected, wouldn't I?"
"Yeah, exactly. Then this place'd be fucked, wouldn't it?" Bullet Head finishes his pint.
Bullet Head smiles and stands up, turns to me and winks.
"Yeah. Anyway, see you around"