Kinder, Küche, Kirche – New Short Fiction by Marina Koulouri

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Short Fiction

Zurich in the 1930s was a city of contrasts, a juxtaposition of old-world charm and new-world progress. Cobbled streets wound their way between stately buildings with centuries-old architecture, while trams clanged their arrival at bustling stops filled with men in their tailored suits and women in modest dresses. The scent of fresh bread wafted from bakeries nestled among the towering banks and shops that lined the streets, an inviting aroma that mingled with the gradually warmer early summer air.

It was on one of these busy streets that I found myself, walking with purpose toward my destination: Federal Institute of Technology, the first public research university in Zurich with nearly a century of history in its tail. I’ve always felt like being born in a world not quite ready for someone like me and today was proof of that. Weaving through the throngs of people in haste and anticipation I acted against any notion of propriety upon which my mother stubbornly clung, her graying hair pulled back tightly as her stern features settled into a frown.

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the memory, but it wasn’t the time to be consumed by such trivialities. I was taking my last exam before graduating to be the first lady Industrial Manager and Entrepreneur in the city, perhaps even in the country and the entire world. I hurried through the entrance of the university’s main building, the imposing dome over my head reflecting the glorious past of universality, inventiveness, and know-how, as well as the rising self-confidence that was meant to drive Swiss technology, industry, and economy to the future—a future part of which I was soon to be. Halls echoing with the voices of students and professors exchanging ideas over recent developments, a hive of hope for change, for progress, and a brighter tomorrow against the economic depression that the world struggled with since the stock market crashed in 1929.

“Ah, Miss Walther,” a voice called out, pulling me from my introspection. “You’re late. Again.”

“Apologies, Professor Keller. I was just reflecting on how fortunate we are to attend such an esteemed institution, despite the challenging times we find ourselves in.”

“Your passion is admirable, Miss Walther. However, punctuality is also a virtue.”

Professor Keller’s raised eyebrow was no a sign of approval, and I was forced to bow my head in, my fingers tightening around the strap of my brown cowhide schoolbag, a faithful companion and lucky charm through my exceptionally successful educational years, as I knew all too well that my very presence at this school was something of a novelty which I never should overlook or get too smug about. Not every professor at the Institute recognised the value of female contribution and the importance of breaking down social barriers of the past in pursuit of progress like Professor Keller did, and I was far from allaying the mistrust of most of my male classmates, who seemed to regard my presence in the lecture hall as an unwelcome intrusion and a threat to their own ambitions. Whispers and stares following me like vultures ready to pounce on any sign of weakness were not unknown to me, still, I refused to be deterred by such evil and narrow-mindedness and, instead, channelled my frustration into a fierce determination to prove them wrong.

My efforts were soon to be rewarded as I was called to the podium to receive my degree—a moment of satisfaction and relief that I had worked so hard for. Applauded by my fellow graduates, and acknowledged with a warm embrace by Professor Keller, tears of joy began streaming down from my eyes, which abruptly dried up when I saw the sour expression on my mother’s face. She had made little effort hiding her disapproval of the ‘unnatural’ path I had chosen to take, one that didn’t result in a good husband and raising a family—a woman’s only place in society according to her worldview.

“Admirable!” she had to admit nudged by my father, who looked noticeably proud of my accomplishment, his eyes sparkling with admiration and a subtle smile gracing his otherwise stoic face. Make no mistake, prudence and long-standing traditions were important to him, too, but he was also open-minded enough to realise that times were changing, not only in terms of technology and science but also in the way women were seen and perceived in society, or the way they should be seen and perceived anyway. With a brilliant career of his own in banking and investment, he was glad I had found a life course that allowed me to develop my skills as an entrepreneur while being true to my own beliefs and standing tall against all odds.

And so, it was with much joy and pride that we celebrated the end of my studies at a glittering graduation party held at our house in the old town of Zurich, on the top floor of a stone building with long rows of green windows and a splendid view of the city and the river, which I had spent hours over hours staring at and daydreaming of a day like this. It was a grandiose occasion populated by esteemed professionals of the academic, banking and business world—a perfect opportunity for me to show off what I had achieved—complemented by an elite of my mother’s social circle, where she had been struggling to incorporate me with the hope of my being swept off my feet by some eligible bachelor and blasted into a completely different course than the one I had chosen.

It was as though it had all been premeditated.

Amongst the crowd, I found myself searching for the whereabouts of Friedrich, a distant figure who had been an occasional visitor at family gatherings in the past, always accompanying his British aunt. She was a woman of wealth and stature who had moved to Zurich some two decades ago. Her exuberant character was the total opposite of my parents’ typical type of friend, and I never quite could figure out how she had come to be so close to our family. I very much enjoyed her eccentric personality which stood in stark contrast to my mother’s proper demeanor, and in her, I had often found a valuable confidante to unburden all of my feelings about how my mother always seemed determined to control my life with her constant nagging and reprimands. But Friedrich, I had never paid much attention to him as I had usually been too preoccupied with my studies, not to mention that he looked like the perfect fit for my mother’s vision of a suitable husband. 

It was different this time for some inexplicable reason. Perhaps because of the long velvet coat and top hat he came dressed in that added poise and elegance to his already striking appearance; perhaps because of the effortless confidence with which he swept into the room, his honey-blonde hair shining under the chandeliers’ light as he glided through the guests, flashing his easy smile. Or perhaps because, for the first time, he appeared deeply fascinated by me, and we couldn’t help but exchange glances throughout the evening until we eventually found ourselves alone in one corner of the drawing room chatting away in excited voices about our respective plans for the future. 

Then, he took out of his pocket a small wooden box, a present for my graduation, and I was speechless, touched by his thoughtfulness. Our eyes locked and I felt an electric current passing between us. I opened the box to find an elegant silver pen with an inscription engraved along its side. 

“The word impossible is not in my dictionary,” I read and impulsively chuckled thinking it sounded exactly like something I could have said. 

“Napoleon!” he informed me with a smile that made his eyes shine like a moonlit night. 

“You think of me as a conqueror?”

“You must be if you’ve come so far already!”

“The world needs more men who think as you do.” 

“With bright minds like yours, old prejudices will soon fade away.”  

He squeezed my hand, sending pleasant tingles up my arm. No man had ever truly seen me before. Yet there was Friedrich, meeting me as an equal. 

The days ahead were a whirlwind of activity, with plans to be made, meetings and discussions to be had, a flurry of trips between bustling cities to meet in awe-inspiring boardrooms with industrialists who quickly were able to push past their shock at the sight of a woman applying for a role in a male-dominated field and eventually showed appreciation for her ambition turning into impressed admirers. I would often revisit my mentor’s office at the university, the familiar scent of old books and worn leather filling my nostrils, offering comfort and reassurance as I recalled our countless conversations within these walls.

“Ah, Miss Walther!” Professor Keller exclaimed upon seeing me enter his cluttered office. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“Professor,” I replied, taking a seat on the threadbare chair opposite his desk, “I have some news to share with you.” My heart raced in anticipation, for I was fully aware of the repercussions this next step could have on my future, but I trusted Professor Keller to guide me wisely just as he had throughout my academic pursuits.

“Go on,” he encouraged, folding his hands on the desk before him.

“Recently, I received an offer to oversee the production line of a big chocolate company,” I said, trying to gauge his reaction.

“Oh but that’s marvellous news, Miss Walther. Congratulations!” He leaned forward, clearly enthused by the prospect. “This is a most prestigious position, Elsa! Why don’t you look thrilled?”

I hesitated, feeling the weight of his expectations bearing down on me like the heavy tomes lining the shelves behind him. “I declined the offer, Professor.”

“You did?” he exclaimed in bewilderment, his brows furrowing. “But why, my dear girl? Don’t you realise what a monumental step in your career that could be?”

I shifted in my seat, suddenly aware of its old scratchy fabric. The room felt smaller and constricting around me like the corsets which women had only gotten rid of in the face of a Great War. This decision was mine to make but I couldn’t help but think whether it could be one of those moments in history where one individual’s choice shapes an entire world’s future. 

“Professor,” I began, summoning the courage to elaborate. “I plan to trade it instead,” I confessed, feeling the weight of my secret lifting.

“Trade it?” Professor Keller exclaimed in a tone that prepared me for an emphatic objection. “But there is far too much competition in trading chocolate for you to make a profit. Look around! Swiss chocolate is everywhere!”

“Not white chocolate!” My announcement took him by surprise and he raised his eyebrow doubtful but also intrigued. “A simple mixture of butter, milk, and sugar!” I continued with increasing enthusiasm. 

“No cocoa imports then?”

“No cocoa imports!”

He shook his head and stood up, placing his hands behind his back as he paced the room. His footsteps echoed off the walls and it occurred to me that this was not only a conversation about my future but a reminder of my past—a journey filled with obstacles but opportunities as well. 

“Perhaps,” he finally concluded after several minutes of contemplation, “You could start by working with local communities rather than competing directly with the big players. The first and foremost is to forge relationships with your customers, treat them as real human beings. That will make a difference for you!”

I smiled at him gratefully, feeling reassured by his wise counsel. Through Professor Keller’s guidance, I would design an alternative route to success, not one that would grant me stability, yes, but one that would give me the freedom to explore my potential.

And I had Friedrich’s support every step of the way to my new venture. My ideas would make his eyes spark, his gaze lingering on me with a depth of understanding that few had ever shown me. I would feel so powerful with his encouragement, my imagination making up scenes of him and me in a shared future, hearts beating as one and focus on the challenges that lay ahead.  With Friedrich by my side, I could conquer the world—one exquisite piece of chocolate at a time.

It was at my first trade fair in Bern that I realised the path I’d decided to take was not set with roses. A cold figure emerged from the crowd—Hans Meyer of ‘Hans & Ludwig’, one of my most formidable antagonists with a ruthless reputation that by far preceded him. The way he had conducted business in the chocolate industry had left his brother a partner only by name—his methods not a paragon of honour. His icy gaze burned into me with disdain and, even though he disguised it with pleasantries, it was clear that my presence at the fair did not sit well with him. He spoke in the speed of a machine gun loaded with confidence, while I stumbled over words—a stark reminder of how much I still needed to learn before I could challenge such an adversary.

“Perhaps you are looking for someone to back you up. Something like a partner who can give you a push, provide the resources you need to compete in this industry.” 

His words dripped with sweet poison as he reached into his pocket, withdrawing a small cheque-book. “Let us say… this could be a token of appreciation if you were to accept my offer.” And he scribbled a number on a cheque with more figures than I could count. I refused his offer and watched as surprise replaced arrogance in his expression. His eyes narrowed at me as if weighing up every option before concluding, “Then, this is war.” And he turned on his heel and walked away without another word. 

War with Hans Meyer was no idle threat. He had the money and influence to buy up shares of my fledgling business and drive me out of the market, and he had all the necessary connections to sabotage any prospective alliances I might attempt to form. I was resolved not to let him. Yet, my frustration would sometimes brew for days, a storm cloud threatening to burst at any moment. The smirks and snide remarks I received from Meyer’s puppets hung in the air like a thick fog, suffocating me.

“Keep your chin up, Elsa,” I’d mutter to myself, drawing strength from my own determination, from Professor Keller’s encouragement, and Friedrich’s support.

As if summoned by my thoughts, Friedrich appeared that day in my office, his fair hair and cream suit looking like a sudden burst of sunshine. Warmth filled my chest at the sight of him which I quickly pushed down. This was no time for such feelings. He suggested a break, and it was exactly what I needed to clear my head, so we walked to our favourite café in the old town, where, but for the black coffee, I ordered every sweet pastry available on the menu.

He smiled, genuine concern brimming his eyes. “I can see something’s bothering you. What’s happened?”

“Nothing I haven’t faced before,” I replied, trying to mask my annoyance. “Just another day dealing with men who believe women’s life should only be about children, kitchen, and the Sunday Mass.”

“They’re just fools,” Friedrich sighed, shaking his head. “Don’t let them get to you.”

“Oh yes? Just let me know how I can ‘not let them get to me’ if I have to fight every step of the way just to be taken seriously.” I retorted, my anger suddenly erupting like a volcano. Surprisingly, Friedrich met my remark with a gentle yet confident voice.

 “That’s true,” he agreed. “But making a breakthrough is no small feat even for a man. You should try fighting for justice in a judicial system that was mostly developed by and for those who injustice benefits the most. Trust me, the world of law can be just as unforgiving as any other.”

“I’m so sorry, Friedrich,” I murmured touching his arm in regret and apology. “I didn’t mean to belittle your own efforts.”

“I believe in you just as much as I believe in myself,” he replied, the tender smile on his lips feeling enough to melt away all my fears and lift off my shoulders the huge load of disappointment I’d been carrying around for days.

“Ah, what a delightful surprise!” a voice called out, jarring Friedrich and me from our stare, causing us both to turn to its direction.

“Aunt Martha!” Friedrich exclaimed, his face lighting up with affection. “You didn’t say you had a visit to town in mind. I could have waited for us to take the suburban train together.”

“Oh, darling,” she chuckled, her eyes dancing with mischief. “It’s been years since your dear old Auntie needed a chaperone, and, besides, a woman often has to take care of business on her own.”

She fixed her eyes on me, and a contented smile appeared on her lips. “Elsa, my love, I haven’t seen you for far too long but I hear you’ve grown into such a strong and independent woman,” she continued shooting a glance at her nephew. “Your parents must be so proud of you. We all are!”

“Thank you, Aunt Martha,” I mumbled, touched by her kind words. “Won’t you join us?”

It was typical of Aunt Martha to waste no time in engaging in the most lively conversation. She was interested in hearing my latest endeavours and spoke so proudly of Friedrich’s own achievements. There came a warmth in her voice when speaking of Friedrich’s accomplishments that was highly endearing, even when she sometimes deliberately revealed embarrassing details about him that he’d rather not have shared with me. It was quite refreshing to be in her company, another strong ally, a woman who had lived beyond the traditional expectations of society herself.

“Yes, Friedrich, it’s perfectly alright to leave us women here alone—we won’t question your chivalry. Go to your appointment and we’ll catch up another time!” I jested as he expressed his concern about the time, explaining he had to attend a client meeting. In all honesty, I was just dying for Aunt Martha and me to be left together so I could extract from her even more interesting tales about Friedrich’s past.

“Oh, but I must also tell you, my dear Elsa,” Aunt Martha continued, her voice changing to a tone of significance, “that I have been hoping for some time now that my beloved nephew will find happiness and companionship in marriage. I don’t regret abstaining from matrimony myself if you ask me, but I have to admit that a marriage built on mutual respect and shared aspirations can be an extremely powerful force.”

 Her words left something of a taboo-breaker inside my head, my thought fleeing to Friedrich and my cheeks flushing red as a chain reaction to it.

“Marriage is a complex matter, Aunt Martha,” I replied cautiously, my heart pounding in my chest. “I can’t even begin to imagine what delicate balance one must keep between family and a successful career. It’s hard enough if you’re a man! For a woman …”

“Of course, my dear,” she conceded, her gaze softening. “But it might not be impossible if there’s understanding, love, and, well, … great sex!” She gave me an impish wink as I chortled in astonishment, and the blush on my cheeks immediately spread upon my whole face.

Aunt Martha’s implications loomed over my next meeting with Friedrich like a thick cloud. There had been several occasions when I had sensed, perhaps even wished, that there had been more between Friedrich and me than  friendship and innocent flirtation. I was sufficiently intelligent to recognise my own growing affection. But could he and I have a real relationship? What might that be like? What would it mean?

A silence had settled between us as we found ourselves meandering down the cobblestone streets of Niederdorf, never ceasing to be amazed by the undying enchanting character of Zurich’s old town. The age-old buildings that lined our walk were bathed in a golden glow created by the warm afternoon light, their weathered exteriors bearing witness to centuries of unknown tales. Shops with iron signs proudly displayed their trades, tempting the passersby with promises of the finest jewellery, handcrafted trinkets, exotic spices, crunchy bread and pastry, and the finest Swiss confections. Some of them would even have my white chocolate on open display.

“Sometimes I wonder…” I began hesitantly, “If it’s too much to ask for—success, love, family. Can one really have it all?”

“Nothing is impossible for you, Elsa. Whatever you decide to do, I know you’ll find a way to make it work.”

I turned to him, looking for that familiar reassurance that usually came with his words, which was strangely absent from his last utterance, but his gaze remained fixed on the lumpy stone path beneath our feet. He wasn’t usually this restrained, so I couldn’t help but be surprised by the sudden hesitation that appeared to envelop him.

“What is it, Friedrich?” I asked, concern evident in my tone. “It’s not like you to leave things unsaid.”

“Forgive me, Elsa,” he admitted finally meeting my eyes. “I wouldn’t want to impose my ideas upon you, especially when it comes to matters that are so sensitive and personal.”

His evasiveness only served to heighten my curiosity, my female vanity even, because if Aunt Martha’s instinct was correct and Friedrich was in love with me, that would be a gift I would gratefully receive, a peak I would proudly climb and conquer.

“Please, Friedrich,” I urged softly, “I value your opinion. You have always been a source of wisdom and support for me.”

He stopped and turned towards me, his gaze meeting mine almost pleadingly.

“Wisdom and support?” he repeated with a bitter echo in his voice, and I felt like the air between us had grown warmer, each syllable coming from his lips sinking deep into my being, filling my heart with an emotion I had never known. 

“That and … something else…!” I added in a barely audible whisper, scared to my bones and delighted, my pulse quickening at the thought of what his response might be.

But Friedrich didn’t reply; not in words anyway. He reached out for my hands and slowly pulled them up and around his neck. His eyes shimmered with passion and a newfound clarity as he closed the gap between us and touched my lips with his, tenderly at first, deeper and more hungrily as the moments passed and his hands snaked around my waist and back squeezing me tighter against his body. Time had stood still and nothing else mattered. 

It was that and something else alright. A desire so strong, passionate, and gentle that could wash away all my fears. Our bodies collided into embraces of playful fervour, symphonies of sighs, moans, and laughter echoing off the walls for hours, tongues dancing together in perfect harmony, hands roaming freely across the skin with a sense of purposefulness, safe and familiar like home.

Understanding, love, and great sex, it was all there; but there was also an overwhelming sense of responsibility and self-doubt that was lingering longer even than the sweetness and excitement of our passionate encounters. As much as I wanted him to be a part of my life, no matter how fulfilling that felt, I dreaded the thought of having to choose between a career and true love. My independence and self-growth had been the main focus of my life up until then. How could I reconcile my desire for him with the very essence of who I was?

And it didn’t end there. My mother only added to my torment, showering us with her approval and enthusiasm—something that should have made me happy but instead gave me an odd feeling of unease, her opinion weighing down on me, weighing down on us both.

“Finally, Elsa,” she would say, her voice softening like never before, “I am so pleased to hear that you’ve decided to turn your focus where it really matters!”

There would be an impulsive smile formed on my mouth—one that I did not have to force for the sake of propriety—when she enumerated the various proofs of Friedrich’s affection, the way he looked at me, how he sat close to me or leaned in to whisper into my ear. And then it hit me. My mother was watching me closely, observing me, observing us and our every move measuring us against her standards, her expectations, her dreams.

And as the days dragged on with no joyous pronouncement being made, her frustration would mount and she’d make nasty remarks about what flaws in my character Friedrich must have found to hesitate to take the next step.  

“It is sincerely beyond me how a woman as beautiful and clever as you can’t seem to get a ring out of a man so obviously smitten!”

“Thank you, Mama. If you must know, Friedrich won’t pressure me because he understands me in ways that most others can’t.”

“Understands? But that is not a requirement in a marriage, my dear! Do you think your father ever understood me?”

“Perhaps he’s been too busy suffering you instead!”

The words we exchanged cut deep, leaving me with a gushing wound of shame and inadequacy. I cringed at the mere thought of ever being spoken about this way: Friedrich and I, lifelong partners in discontent, trapped in a loveless existence because I was too afraid to take the risk. My heart was at the right place with Friedrich, but the more he and I spent time together, the more these thoughts haunted me, even more so seeing that Friedrich too seemed hesitant to open himself up completely—it wasn’t like he had proposed marriage after all. What if my mother was right? What if he was waiting for me to make the first move and be the one to surrender?

I would often dream of the future, of a different life in a different place, where being a wife, a mother, and an independent woman with a successful career and the ability to pursue her own desires was possible without having to sacrifice one for the other. My days were saturated with longing and introspection. I had doubts; so many doubts that I could be true to myself and still find a way to make everyone in my life happy.

I was getting paranoid. The creek of the bedroom door in the morning and the sound of the front door opening when Friedrich left for the office would make me miserable. Could that be the last time I saw him? Would he be coming back? I’d wake up in the middle of the night feeling his arms around me, our bodies close, breathing heavily into each other’s hair, hot and heavy from another restless night’s sleep, wondering why he was still there or why he wouldn’t want to commit to me. I saw myself laying next to him, watching him as he slept, reading his face and trying to uncover the secrets that lay beneath, when all I really needed was to decipher myself and what I wanted.

Friedrich had been so patient with me, so understanding; I knew I was never going to find a better man, a better partner, a better father for my children, than him. But with each day that passed I began to realise that my mind was already wandering away from him, away from us. And my heart was too!

“I’m sorry, Friedrich! I wish I could tell what the future will bring, but I can’t!”

“No one ever can.”

He looked at me earnestly, silently followed me to the door. He made no attempt to stop me, and I couldn’t be more grateful. We held each other’s hand, stared into each other’s eyes. And so, we parted.

I have missed him every day of my life since. I wouldn’t trade my successes for anything, but a part of me still wonders what could have been if I hadn’t gone away. 

He is married now! His aunt and my father say she’s a wonderful girl, and she must be if he chose to be with her. 

My mother still has a hard time accepting that there is no future for him and me anymore—I’m afraid she never quite recovered from the aftermath of my decision. I see her still struggling with my choices, but she is starting to accept who I am, perhaps even taking a little pride in what I have accomplished. 

I too have found love again, of course. But it’s not the same as it was with Friedrich. It’s different, more practical, less passionate, … and exactly what I need. As the years have passed, I’ve realised that true love is hardly ever enough. And it rarely lasts forever. Most of the times, it’s fleeting, like a summer breeze that comes and goes without warning. It’s a blessing to have felt its caress on your face just once in your life.

There are many roads to happiness—that’s what I’ve learnt. No right or wrong, only choices. I made mine; this is my destiny. There will always be something missing. But no one can have it all. Can they? 

Fascinated by the power of the past to shape the present and future, Marina Koulouri writes Historical fiction set in the mid-war period and WW2 France and Germany. Her writing journey begins in her early teens when she realises the liberating power of storytelling. Her themes include haunting relationships, guilty secrets and dilemmas, choices and consequences, while her characters struggle with their beliefs, hopes, and fears, all against the impact of major historical events.


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