I stared up at the billboard. Behind me a bus went past, no doubt with the same poster stretched across its side. The advert was all over the city. The same girl smiled out to the commoners below, beautiful and radiant. She smiled from billboards, buses, the underground, the TV. Looking up at her on that street in that part of town as I had done since the advert was first plastered there for all to see, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was empty and hollow. A laugh at the irony of how different the two of us were. One beautiful and air brushed to perfection, smiling as though at that very moment, her life was flawless. The other was stood in her thinning hoodie, the hood over her eyes to hide the fatigue and her lank, greasy hair.
Someone stopped next to me and followed my gaze.
“She’s hot”, he stated matter of factly.
“She’s not real” I replied, my voice matching the hollow, empty laugh of before.
“Not round here she’s not. People don’t look like that ’round here. Nah, she’s at the heart of the city that girl. She’s gone somewhere. Folk round here don’t go anywhere but the local for a pint or ten before staggering home to throw up all over the peeling wallpaper.” With that, the man continued walking and it was just me and her again. It was true what he’d said. We were the forgotten outskirts of the city. Billboards were the closest we got to a glamorous life. People here really didn’t look like the girl on the billboard. Neither did I. Companies always smoothed you over before they released the final product they wanted the world to see.
I tried to remember what I’d been thinking whilst the picture was being taken. Did I even know which company I was shooting for or what they were promoting? I don’t think so. No, by that point the drugs had taken over. I didn’t care which commercial I was shooting so long as I got the money for my next fix. That’s why I’m still here, a nobody going nowhere but the co-op for milk and Three-Footed Jimmy’s for a bag of stuff.
I really thought I was going places. The offers started to pour in, more people wanted me in their next advert, I was a rising star. I quit my part-time job at the local Travelodge. I tried my first little white line. I was on top of the world, the girl on the billboard. But the rising star took a tumble and plummeted back down to Earth with a bang. And a constant headache. After turning up to photoshoots with little or no sleep and glazed over eyes, my pictures rarely made it past the editing desk. The offers ran dry.
When the depression of being a jobless girl in a hopeless urban city outskirt hit, I turned to the drugs for comfort. For days I mooched around my flat, completely numb and senseless. Then the bag ran out but I still had enough sense to know leaving the flat stoned was a bad idea. I had to wait to go and get my next fix.
There I was on the way to get a new stash, staring up at the girl I could have been. I could have broken the mould, change what that man had said to make it untrue. Not everybody around here had to stay put. Instead, I was now just a shade of grey, unrecognisable. A different person entirely to the one looking down at me from the billboard. She had chosen not to eat to look good, I rarely ate because I had no money left.
Three-Legged Jimmy was probably wondering where I was. I’d called to say I’d stop by and pick up a bag. He didn’t like to wait and standing here did me no good.
As I left, a van pulled up and a man got out. He started to paint over the billboard. There she was, disappearing. Like a distant memory or a fading star. Erased.