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country bumpkin

Writing by Levi Mitchell. Illustration by Caitlin Osfield.

The Cairngorm scenery makes me ache. It’s so stunningly still, filled with robust, curved mountains that remain a dusty, mottled purple in my mind. When I see them after a long time away, I’m made much giddier by the flecks of snow on top than I was for the whole 18 years I spent seeing them regularly. The train journey from Edinburgh northwards has been the same my whole life. It has been carved into my mind as a sequence of muted tones. Grey seaside, grassy yellow fields, bumpy forests that feel like they engulf the train, the fearsome and overwhelmingly brown Drumochter Pass, then finally sliding into my town that won’t seem to stop shrinking. As I fly through the pattern the ache returns - moved so deeply by the speeding view to a place of pride, whilst also tightening around my heart and creeping through my chest. I walk to Ruthven Barracks and sit, frustrated at how the view dares to be so brilliant whilst I feel so minute.

I feel anxious going home. I feel stressed and guilty for having those creeping sensations as I sit motionless on the train. I have to coach myself through it, reassuring myself that my worries about my carefully curated life in the city slipping away are unfounded, that my life shall remain intact during the handful of days I take it elsewhere. I am fearful when returning to a place I found so isolating. Having seen a very lovely counsellor in my first year at university, I began to realise more my fear of habits and routines. Habits that aren’t catastrophically bad, but were shaped by being in a town of only a thousand people, where I found little comfort in my surroundings and was fearful of anything you could name. Uni has proven, as many people predicted, to be a good time for working my way out of my shell and fashioning a new and less restrictive one (can’t be doing without one entirely just yet). If I go home and sit on the sofa for too long then that old shell will grow back even crustier than the last time, and all the progress I’ve made for myself will fall away, or even transpire to be some kind of dreamed concoction. It creates an added layer of ‘oh fuck oh shit’ pressure when I consider post-uni life. I can’t move home when rent gets too high. It feels, maybe over-dramatically, like a bit of a death sentence to leave the city for the Highlands: none of the comforts I use to manage my mood are there, none of the museums, none of the ease of travel in any direction. A head-clearing walk to the shops here can take ten minutes, or two hours if I prefer. At home I have one shop and a set of very thoroughly tread paths that feel comforting once every three to six months, but stifling every day.

I often feel like I’m missing some of the warmth of returning home because I’ve transitioned. Maybe I was expecting more of the quaint village I’ve seen on screen, but I feel in an odd position. I started transitioning in my last year of high school but existed in a strange state of limbo - being out to some, not having the conversation with others and hoping they’d figure it out on their own. Conversations with family, friends, and teachers - whilst the thought of them made my stomach flip - at least had blueprints I could follow from other trans people. What the hell do you say to the elderly hairdresser you only see every three months? Why bother getting into what could be a dramatic conversation with someone for the sake of only half an hour every so often; this is what I thought, but I think I’ve now found enough self-respect to realise I am worth the bother. Now, a couple years on hormones and even more years of just growing up (and thankfully managing to style myself much better) I can’t tell who recognises me and who doesn’t. I wasn’t exactly a village socialite to begin with, but I feel on edge at home; it remains one of the only places I still get misgendered. It doesn’t feel as easy to be a blond twink with a baby mustache once the buildings shrink a couple storeys and the cheapest form of transport is my parent’s Volvo.

There were definite frustrations in my transition that were born out of rural life, but I find they aren’t what people necessarily assume. What most people I’ve spoken to about living in a small town seem to pressume is that it must have been incredibly difficult to have done what I did because of how bigoted and progress-averse most people must have been. Thankfully - luckily - this wasn’t my experience. Rather, I found reactions to be incredibly mixed and mostly non-confrontational - if people had bad things to say they at least didn’t do it in my vicinity. What I envied was the anonymity that seemed more achievable in cities. I was surrounded by teens I’d spent five days a week with since toddlerhood, and by their parents who also had a front-row seat to my growing up. Transitioning then felt so uncomfortably public and vulnerable and so incompatible with how I vibe best. I enjoy cultivating an air of mystery, and to suddenly feel it blown away - when experiencing something so personal and so poorly understood by those inexperienced in it - felt so embarrassing and almost shameful. I felt both rigid, as if shocked, and slumped. Tired and trying to hide. The limbo I was in before uni seems to still be in place every time I visit. The last time my partner came home with me, a school friend’s mum used the name Levi and chased it with the wrong pronouns. Last year my mum went to pick up some food we’d ordered, and given that my partner and I were up it was more than they usually get, and working there was someone from my school year. He did the same thing: right name, wrong pronouns. I’ve been out since 2015. It’s an oddly surreal and laughable incident at this point, but it no doubt influences the Kingussie that lives in my head. It is a still and motionless place. It isn’t a place of fear or violence for me, but one of unease. Each time I visit and walk around alone, I feel as awkwardly out of place as I did in school, when I was the only known trans person in the building. I can feel my eyes darting around, my fingers fidgeting, as I keep my eye out for people who knew me in school, parent’s friends; people who may be warm, but might in the same breath remind me of why I felt so restless during my small-town life.

My opinions on small-town living spill all over the place, and to an extent are quite distorted. I wanted certain things in life that I couldn’t find in Kingussie and now I regard it with distaste. But then I take advantage of it as a place that lets me remove myself from stressful uni/city/social life and take up residence on a familiar and comforting sofa that’s been there for me since 2008.

Have I become a yuppie?

I only visit rural areas to escape my fast-paced metropolitan lifestyle…

No. I think it requires more money.

University has seen me try to balance pride and fear in negotiating the way Kingussie factors into who I am. I’ve grown equally proud and resentful of it, both emotions held in my head and making appearances in different situations. When my tutorials are swimming with people who all somehow lived in London, I readily identify with being from somewhere rural in Scotland. When I meet someone equally rural, or from Scotland, I’m keen to be someone from the Highlands. I’d like to keep that feeling more consistent and ease away from feeling so resentful. It would do me good if I were to stop punishing myself for having conflicting thoughts. Kingussie is beautiful and boring. Boring isn’t always bad. Boring can be peaceful, like a much needed respite.

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