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  • Published: 15 April 2020
  • ISBN: 9780143796640
  • Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256
  • RRP: $29.99

The Adversary




Beauty that knows no love,
sorrow or pity
repeats the colours of
the burning city.

Amy Witting


A smart man once told me to be careful around gifts, as they’re often more complicated than they first appear. The savviest recipients plumb their gifts for hidden questions, such as what secret agenda has been furthered by this gift? And why have I been chosen to receive it?

The smart man who said this had just given me a gift, which caused me to regard it with considerable suspicion. It was a birthday gift, and it came to me from my housemate Dan, who explained that although the gift at first may have seemed innocent – it was a month’s membership to the Brunswick Baths, a gym ten minutes’ walk from our crumbling townhouse – what he really wanted was to give me a reason to get out of the house, something he’d noticed happening much less throughout the winter, meaning he came home from work or his boyfriend’s apartment and was not able to spend any time in the house by himself.

‘But don’t stress,’ he finished. ‘Nothing’s wholly altruistic. Why do you think the gift horse doesn’t want you near its mouth? That’s where it keeps its money and its motives.’

I used the gym a few times that month, the deepest dark of winter, but when September came, and with it spring, I did not renew the membership; the gym contained too many fluids, too many weird-eyed men, and one day I finished a full forty-minute workout before realising I had done so while wearing a pair of jeans, a situation that filled me with a queasy kind of terror. No good things come to animals that stop paying attention to their surroundings. It suggested a particular evolutionary fate.

But I was reminded of Dan’s advice just a few months later, when I happened to meet a few pretty interesting gift horses, and sometimes even had to work out what to do with their mouths – if I should kiss them, scrutinise them, grab a towel and wipe them down? I was often given gifts that summer, free advice, free rides, and in all cases these gifts were most completely understood not as magic freedoms, being hurled around the world, but always as the leavings of complicated creatures, some of whom wore costumes that concealed their intentions.

There was no hiding in our house, and Dan had not been wrong to want me outside of it at least some of the time. It was a townhouse on Park Street between Lygon Street and Sydney Road, with a half-view of the fountain at the north end of the park, the hesitant edge of dirt tracks and bike-lock-beringed light poles, the thin-grassed area that guarded its vast, green, jogging innards. Behind the sloping balcony, through two windows that clunked, were my room and Dan’s room, and downstairs was the kitchen and the weedy little yard.

The house was long and narrow, with large bedrooms and loud floors, and I always had the feeling, moving up those shaky stairs, of stepping up and down the house’s secret central organ, an old muscle that wasn’t going to take it anymore.

It was a slow tram into Carlton, and a quick walk to Barkly Square, where I’d recently decided to shop at the tactical hours of dusk and dawn, so I had more chance of running into people from uni and engaging them in friendly conversation.

I was definitely not a shut-in. I had this thought all the time. I was just a guy standing in front of a door and almost never opening it, because I’d finished my assignments, and swot vac, and exam block, and also because my youth allowance was at its most effective in funding a life spent quietly indoors.

I thought the Barkly Square idea was clever and inspired, and it wasn’t until I voiced the plan to Dan that I realised these were not the main qualities it signified.

‘Making friends at dusk and dawn,’ he said. ‘Like the humble mosquito.’

Possibly because it was met with this response, I never enacted the mosquito plot.


I ramped up my showers as spring stretched on, I read a lot of books; I discovered a dark red at the Mediterranean Wholesalers that cost four dollars even but was absolutely good. I drank on the balcony in the drowsy light of dusk, which was sticking around later and later, an orange presence reaching from the eights into the nines.

Everything smelled like jasmine and looked like jacarandas. The clocks added their hours. Then one Saturday morning I woke up to a text that turned out to have substantial repercussions.


Dan, who used to send amazing text messages – ‘WHAT is the numerical version of the alphabet? If A is the first in the alphabet, 1 is the first in the WHAT?’ – had lately become the tersest texter to have walked the earth, writing messages in a neutral form of old-fashioned chatspeak, like he was taking an early shot at being a suburban dad: ‘CAN U PICK UP THE AGE,’ he’d write. ‘HAVING A GOOD DAY U.’

It was an interesting gesture, but difficult to support when I knew he had the full deck of syntactic possibilities at his disposal, and when catch-up opportunities were thinner on the ground than they had been this time a year ago.

He was sitting in the kitchen in his thick bathrobe of deep green, casually opening the weekend paper to the quiz page and smelling the surface of a cup of homemade brew. It was warm today already, it would hit thirty degrees, and the sweatiness of his dressing gown would somehow be the point of wearing it: a general refusal to roll with the punches, especially if no punches were right then aimed at him.

‘Hi,’ he said.

‘You want me to come out tonight,’ I said.

He peered over his paper, a wonderful prop.

‘We would like you to come out tonight,’ he said.

‘We’ was he and Lachlan, who was also in the kitchen, leaning on the bench and also drinking coffee, heavy in the matching deep green robe he called his own.

Lachlan looked at me seriously. He nodded at me seriously. He was a serious person, a serious Lachlan, a serious boyfriend for my housemate Dan. And I was not against this, at least not every part; but I could not help resisting the very swift progression from his Fitzroy apartment into our lives and home, first hooking up with Dan, then sleeping in Dan’s room, then sometimes appearing in the kitchen in the mornings, where he stood stoically waiting for Dan to finish showering and then shepherding him out of the house and to their jobs.

The truth was that this was an increasingly rare scenario, because Dan stayed at Lachlan’s more and more of the time. I probably would go out tonight because I knew that if I didn’t, I would go to sleep by myself at this townhouse in Brunswick with Dan and Lachlan having gone to bed in Fitzroy, given that Lachlan’s Oxford Street apartment was closer to the queer party they planned to attend.

‘Who’ll be there tonight anyway,’ I said.

‘Nobody knows,’ said Dan.

I stared at him. He stared at me. This was a frequent pattern.

‘You’re just going out tonight with nobody else there?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘As a couple.’

‘Doing what?’ I said.

‘Drinking and talking.’

‘Drinking and talking?’

‘It only sounds fake when you say it back like that,’ he said.

‘Chris L will be there,’ said Lachlan.

‘Will he,’ I said.

Dan closed his eyes, because the jig was up: Lachlan had exposed the ulterior motive.

Chris L was a fearsome person we used to call Mysterious Chris, both for the long silver cape he wore in his internet photos and for his large, black, bugeyed sunglasses. Sunglasses are not mysterious in and of themselves, they are only covering two things, and both of them are eyes, but taken together, and applied consistently, a silver cape and large sunglasses in multiple pictures created a vibe that was mysterious indeed.

He was the news that walked like a man, and I did not understand how he had ended up living with Lachlan, the man who stood like a plank. But this difficult-to-process fact is exactly what I’d learned not very long after Dan had started sleeping over at Lachlan’s apartment. Their living together suggested that Lachlan was more mysterious than he seemed, or that Chris L was less mysterious than we’d judged him to be. I did not know which scenario was more likely.

Recently, Dan had been treasonously suggesting that I should make an effort to meet and befriend Chris L, which was clearly not to do with our personal similarities but instead to do with making life easier for Dan, the idea being that Chris L and I could bond and create an atmosphere conducive to the construction of a wider friendship group. This way, Dan, who had once walked into my room, apropos nothing, and told me that he felt oppressed by the doctrine of queer family, could have me in place, and Chris L in place too, the better to advance his own romantic ends – a family in two houses, with Chris L and me like children, and Dan and Lachlan doubling in the role of dad.

I was not against being in place – I was proud of my stillness – but I was against, as we all are, being crudely manipulated by those who know us well enough to more finely pluck our strings. There was no finesse in this plan. Real friendship took effort. I would not give them the pleasure of participating.

‘Hey, Lachlan,’ I said.

He looked at me, alarmed.

‘I heard Chris L lathers and rinses, but never repeats. Is that true?’

‘Come out with us,’ said Dan.


‘It’s important,’ he said.

I rolled my eyes around the room and walked them up the stairs.

The Adversary Ronnie Scott

A story about sexuality, the ache of friendship and love, and sticky summers at the pool, this exhilarating debut novel captures the heartbeat of one transformative summer where alliances are made and broken.

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