Nathan Johnson
Madrid, December 2002

The inhabitants of Madrid are said to leave their city in droves in July on account of the scorching heat. But I also doubt they’d recommend December as the ideal time to visit the Spanish capital. For who travels through Spain – a country renowned for its heat, sunshine and lobster-red British tourists – in the depths of winter?

Yet, Madrid was where I found myself one chilly, wet December. Upon arrival, I checked into my hostel and went out for a stroll. The city appeared pleasant enough. There were no great sights but the architecture was attractive and I felt drawn to it. But I also felt far from home.

I was making my way overland from Lisbon to London – a final backpacking stint before going back to earning a crust. I was travelling cheaply by bus and train and staying in backpackers’ quarters of varying levels of comfort. In the past week I had walked two kilometres in the rain across the river border separating Portugal and Spain, got lost searching for a long-since-closed hostel in Vigo, battled St James’ pilgrims for accommodation in Santiago de Compestela, and made my own pilgrimage to A Coruña for the sole purpose of seeing a football ground.

Onto Madrid and, as I sat in an inexpensive restaurant eating lunch on the Puerta del Sol, I heard a familiar song waft from the speakers. I looked around. The other customers were eating or engaged in conversation. There were no obvious flickers of recognition among these people. But there it was, completely unexpected, yet unmistakable.

Hey, little girl
Where will you hide?
Who can you run to now?

 Icehouse? In Madrid? Was I really hearing this? I was.

I put my lunch down, sat back and listened. It had that typical Icehouse rhythm, the song chugging along at an even pace, not trying to do too much, yet doing plenty. There was the catchy riff, the tell-tale drum machine and the silky vocals of Iva Davies – all that one expects from an Icehouse track. This was not the sound of Europe, but the Australian suburbs. It was the sound of home. Its familiarity was warming on a Spanish winter’s day.

Hey, little girl
Where will you go?
Who can you turn to now?

 Hey Little Girl is not my favourite Icehouse song. To me, it’s not nearly as brilliant as No Promises, nor as iconic as Great Southern Land. Nor does it remind me of anybody in particular. But it reminds me of Madrid. It’s what I heard at that moment, when I needed to hear something just like it, when I was between jobs and almost broke.

I would’ve liked to have stayed in Spain longer, but I couldn’t dally. Madrid was just a stop off, and it was the United Kingdom that had issued me a work visa. I desperately needed income. It was with great reluctance, then, that I left Spain and journeyed through frozen France by train to a small rented icehouse in north London, where my job search began.

Based in Canberra, Nathan is a public servant who'd rather write short stories and novels. He has self-published two books - 'The Watermelon Seller: Short Stories of East Asia' (2011) and '16 Ways to Ride a Bicycle' (2015) - through Peacock Publications.