"The Fly in the Ointment" is a short story by V. S. Pritchett. The story begins in the fall, November, when Harold arrives at his father's manufacturing building, the very day the business will close its doors for the final time.
Harold is quick to dismiss the cab driver some distance from the door:
Better not arrive in a taxi, he was thinking. The old man will wonder where I got the money.
Two things become immediately apparent: money is an issue, and Harold does not want to antagonize his father. These two elements set the mood for the remainder of the story. Harold is approximately thirty-five years old. He is not a young man, but he still hesitates to bring anything to his father's attention that will make things uncomfortable. Because Harold's concern is the spending of money (even his own money), it is clear that finances are an issue. The son believes he knows his father well enough to be careful, and decides to walk the rest of the way to the factory.
Harold's father is closing down the business after thirty years, having built his company from the ground up. Success was achieved for a short while, but then difficulties arose, including "rumour," "quarrels," and finally, bankruptcy. The son notes that his memories of family fights about money have suddenly disappeared. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, Harold is deeply saddened that things have come to this for his father, so he has traveled out to support him on the company's final day. The younger man feels a compulsion to help his dad if he can, even if only by showing his support.
Harold's father comes to the door and lets his son in. His father is friendly and solicitous, happy to see the younger man, "lowering his pleased, blue eyes for a second's modesty."
Both seem shy in the other's presence until the father pulls himself together and takes on an air of authority. As they look around the now-empty rooms, the son recalls his dad as a much younger man, speaking with an almost unrecognizable voice—one obviously reserved for customers. As they move to the office, both men have a similar stature, but whereas the father is wearing a fine suit and has the appearance of success, the son is
round-shouldered and shabby, a keen but anxious fellow in need of a hair-cut and going bald.
The older man ushers the younger man into the office, aware of how the room has changed:
"Come in, Professor," said the father. This was an old family joke. He despised his son, who was, in fact, not a professor but a poorly paid lecturer at a provincial university.
For a moment he seems "bewildered," but then he offers his son a cup of tea in the only cup available. Harold declines. While the elder drinks, he apologizes profusely for drinking in front of his boy. Then he makes casual conversation, asking about his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Harold answers his questions and then shares his concern for the failing business, but the old man brushes it aside as if it is nothing. When his son says that his father is an optimist, his dad's manner of speaking changes:
his warm voice going dead and rancorous and his nostrils fidgeting. His eyes went hard, too.
All of a sudden, as Harold looks at the older man, it is like he is seeing him for the first time. Someone the son had never noticed before was speaking to him, as if his father had two faces. The outside face, perhaps the one his customers would see, was affable and engaging. However, the inside face was
a much smaller one, babyish, shrewd, scared and hard. Now this little face had gone greenish and pale. . . . The small, drained purplish lips . . . were speaking.
He is telling his son that being an optimist is the only thing that has kept him in the business. Without optimism, he notes, he would not be there, and the inference is that he would have taken his life long ago. He speaks of how hard building the business was, and of how many days he slept in the office. Suddenly he loses his aggressive demeanor and becomes soft. He hints at past...
(The entire section is 1,548 words.)