20 - A Moment or Two

What is it that distinguishes murder from manslaughter or mishap? Is it motive? Intent? Forethought? Sometimes, it’s nothing more than a moment in time - a few seconds that make the difference between life and death and, by extension, innocence and guilt.

Take, for example, the example set by the Harlow brothers, co-owners of Harlow Confectionery. Theirs was a business that had been handed down from father to son, ever since Harold Harlow began with a small sweetshop in 1896. While not as well known as some of their more famous rivals, they had carved out a modest but profitable slice of the trade, mostly providing chocolate for the catering trade, or manufacturing items for supermarkets’ own-brands. Everyone who worked at Harlow Confectionery took pride in their work and the sense of family wasn’t limited to those who shared DNA, as the company did whatever it could to improve the welfare of their employees, including subsidised childcare and opportunities for training and educational advancement. 

Unfortunately, the changing nature of the industry meant that small manufacturers like Harlow were being swallowed up by multinational conglomerates, making it difficult for the little man to retain his independence. This, coupled with the general economic downturn, meant that Harlow Confectionery lost several key contracts and the co-owners  were forced to reassess their priorities. The two key members of the board, Tim and Kevin Harlow, were suddenly faced with the prospect that they might bear witness to the death of a family enterprise that had lasted for 118 years. The difference in their responses to this grim possibility were marked. Tim vowed to do everything he could to ensure that Harlow Confectionery stayed open and that people did not lose their jobs. Kevin drank.

At a time when the family should have been pulling together to save the company, the brothers found themselves increasingly estranged, with each resenting the other. Tim disapproved of his brother’s descent into the bottle, while Kevin decried his brother as a glory-chaser who wanted to oust him from the company. In reality, Tim wanted nothing more than his older brother’s help, but  was unable to convince him of this and the festering sore of resentment quickly became an open wound. With each passing week, Kevin’s condition worsened and so too did Harlow Confectionery. Meetings were cancelled, deadlines were missed and orders were lost. 

There were mutterings in Harlow homes and offices about what was to be done. All involved knew that Kevin was in need of help, but was now in such an extreme state of paranoia that he saw any attempt at intervention as a coup d’etat and refused to relinquish his stake in the business. Tim, for his part, was reluctant to call a vote of no confidence, fearing that internal politics would further destabilise the company. Others urged him to do it, stating that a seismic change was needed in order to break the deadlock. 

The situation came to a head late one Friday night. Tim was working late, poring over projections that could lift the company out of the fire. While the rest of the employees had gone home hours ago, Tim had thought himself alone until he heard a noise on the factory floor. Going out to investigate, Tim was unsurprised to find Kevin in a state of extreme inebriation, loudly declaiming the factory and those that worked there. Tim watched his brother from the high gantry way, noting that he was even drunker than usual. He then went down to speak to Kevin, thinking that maybe it would be possible to talk some sense into him. Needless to say, this did not work. Kevin took umbrage at Tim’s nosiness and accused him of trying to usurp him. Tim took exception to this and stated that he only wanted what was best for everybody. This was treated with scorn by Kevin, who then brought up the fact that Tim had always been a  goody-goody and that this was why no-one liked him. Tim told Kevin that he was being childish and refused to engage in the conversation, preferring instead to go back to his office and complete his work for the evening. He told Kevin to go home and sleep it off. Kevin chose not to and instead followed Tim up to the office, loudly reeling off lists of his younger brother’s shortcomings, including (but not limited to) his poor sense of rhythm, the dowdiness of his clothes and the fact that he had pooed his pants on a trip to Margate in 1982.

Tim did his best to ignore Kevin’s drunken harassment, even going so far as to lock the office door behind him so that Kevin couldn’t continue. Kevin was undeterred by the locked door and continued shouting obscenities at his sibling. Tim found that the emotional barrage was making it difficult to concentrate on quarterly earnings, so instead crawled under his desk and waited for the storm to pass. While Kevin’s words were often slurred and indecipherable, there was no mistaking the vitriol they carried and Tim, who had always tried to do the best by everybody, broke down in silent tears at the hopelessness of it all.

Eventually, the hail of invective became more subdued and there was a loud howl from outside the office, which Tim took as a final non-verbal exclamation point on the long diatribe of hate.

Cautiously, Tim crawled out from under his desk, wiped away his tears and took several deep breaths. While he understood that his brother was struggling with an addiction, it didn’t alter the fact that his words had wounded him in a very real way. When Tim found his hands still shaking from the emotional trauma, he realised that he was in no fit state to do any more work and decided to go home. Having collected his coat, briefcase and company laptop, Tim switched off the light in his office and walked along the gantry way towards the exit. 

He stopped halfway along the raised platform when he saw the bottle of whisky resting on the handrail. It was the same one his brother had been carrying and Tim found its presence unsettling. It didn’t seem like Kevin to leave a bottle behind, particularly one with something in it. He looked at the bottle suspiciously and approached it with caution. 

A bottle on its own should not have provoked such feelings of dread, even after such an emotionally charged encounter, and it would be tempting to surmise that Tim already knew what had happened when he saw the half-empty bottle on the railing. When considering this hypothesis, one must also consider how familiar a person becomes with spaces they inhabit daily. By spending hours in a place, be it one’s home or place of business, knowledge of its geography becomes almost instinctive, with the mental map of its features and facets becoming ingrained on one’s psyche to the extent that one doesn’t have to consciously think about how the various parts relate. Perhaps, then, the younger Harlow’s antipathy towards the lonely bottle was because it stood directly above the main mixing vat - a container that held 50 gallons of molten cocoa beans, sugar and milk, as well as other emulsifiers and ingredients.

Tim moved cautiously to the edge of the ramp and looked into the vat. There he saw his brother flailing wildly in the thick brown liquid that had been the lifeblood of his family for seven generations. Kevin was struggling desperately against the viscosity of the molten chocolate, not to mention the high temperature required to keep it in a liquid state. It would be clear to anyone watching, even one not as intimately acquainted with the nature of chocolate as a Harlow, that Kevin was in extreme distress and without immediate assistance would not survive.

Tim knew this, but did nothing. It is impossible to say whether he ever consciously considered how much easier life would be if his older brother were dead, but sometimes such things do not need to be spelled out. It was not shock or paralysis that made him freeze, but a conscious act of will that made him stay still and not reach for the emergency shutdown control.

And those few seconds made all the difference. 

The one mercy was that Kevin never knew of his brother’s hesitation. By the time the spell was broken and the mixing vat was shut down, Harlow the elder was already dead.

In the end, the investigation into Kevin Harlow’s death turned out to be the coffin for Harlow Confectionery. Tim was never charged with a crime or found guilty of any wrongdoing, but the spectre of his dead brother followed him wherever he went. When the company was sold at well below its value, Tim chose not to stay on the board of directors.

When people told Tim that Kevin’s death was a tragic accident and that there was nothing that he could have done, Tim would not and gamely say they were right. Mostly, he did this to make them feel better. In his most private moments, Tim would reflect on those wasted seconds and know in his heart that there was no disputing the dreadful truth.

Those few moments made him a murderer.