At a busy hole-in-the-wall cafe, a famous face draws attention. By Gretchen Shirm.

A moment with Marcus Graham

He’s a handsome man who is starting to age. His hair is dark, but flecks of grey are creeping up from his ears; it suits him, it softens the darkness of his face. It is a hard and lean face – that of a man who carries no excess weight. Around his jaw is the shadow of a beard; it looks as though as soon as he finishes shaving he must consider starting the process over again. 

We’re at my local café in Darlinghurst, a busy hole in the wall. It isn’t usually a place for lingering. 

We’re not together. When I see him, I have that sudden feeling of disorientation: he’s familiar but I’m not sure where I know him from. My thoughts careen from place to place and I worry for a moment that I’m going to have to make small talk and account for what I’ve been doing lately. Then I realise it’s the actor Marcus Graham and that I’ve probably been staring. 

I’m not sure why I didn’t recognise him immediately. Perhaps it’s because he has the look about him of someone who doesn’t really want to be noticed. Instead, he looks around, carefully observing other people. He appears tired, with a darkness under his eyes and a lazy gaze that suggests he might have been up too late last night. He looks spent, as though all of his energy has been given over. There’s a coffee in front of him but I haven’t seen him touch it. Though I can’t see in his cup, he looks like a man who wouldn’t bother with milk.

His hair is cut very close to his head and the features on his face are so symmetrical it looks like the space between them has been measured out. It’s a face of angles and lines. He’s on a small metal stool that’s low and close to the footpath. In the little glass fridge next to his table are the pre-made sandwiches. Inside are always the same bread rolls with ham, a poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. The yellow sauce has set, which makes them look plastic, like the food you see in windows at restaurants in Japan. 

We’re in Darlinghurst, which means there’s a perpetual din around us. Behind us, the milk screams in a metal jug as it’s heated. This street is a thoroughfare to the city and the Kings Cross Coke sign is just a few hundred metres away, but in daytime its lights are off. Cars queue beside us and for a few blocks towards Liverpool Street while they wait for the lights to change. Across the road is the fire station and whenever I’m here, I’m bracing for the call of the sirens. Amid this noise, Marcus Graham is quiet, almost serene. 

There’s the feeling of impatience all around – people stand on the footpath dressed for work, phones in hand, waiting for their takeaway coffees. Most people in this area are only visiting and the people who do live here mostly live in apartments. It’s a suburb of strangers, where anonymity prevails. Something about Graham makes me think he must live in the area. It’s the fact that he’s alone and the way he dresses – in his dark shirt and his denim he looks as though he’s better dressed for night than for day.

I probably wouldn’t have recognised Graham, except that I’d seen him on stage in Angels in America at Belvoir St Theatre last year. He played the lawyer Roy Cohn, a closeted homosexual man who contracts AIDS at the height of the epidemic. He acted differently to his colleagues on stage. Most stage actors have a way of speaking, enunciating their words clearly and projecting their voices in a style that never lets us forget they are on stage. But Graham was different. In that production, he inhabited with ease a lawyer’s false confidence, even in the face of death. To me, for those four hours Marcus Graham was Roy Cohn. Suddenly I understand why he looks ruined – it must be exhausting to become another person so completely each day.

He’s silent and so still it looks as though the whole time I’ve been here he hasn’t even drawn breath. He looks up and sees me looking at him and recoils at my gaze. I divert my eyes, wishing I could unrecognise him somehow, that there wouldn’t be this temptation for my eyes to veer in his direction. Because he strikes me as a private man. Sitting there in sunlight, Graham looks stripped back and exposed, snatching a rare moment of being himself. I know who he is and he must know I recognise him, but he looks like he wishes we could both forget what we know.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "People watching".

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Gretchen Shirm is a Sydney author. Her latest novel Where The Light Falls will be published in July 2016.