Illustration by Jaden Tsan: jadentsan.com
I promise myself this time will be different, but it never is. A snowfall of fine, white powder nestles in the ridges of the black leather upholstery, stubbornly refusing to be brushed away. I always upturn the bag by accident, doesn’t everyone? Thinking you have dabbed the last bit up on your finger? My car is going to be cleaned today, I cannot put it off any longer. The coating of Saharan dust on the exterior from a freak rainstorm has not helped either. The sign at the carwash says £45, the friendly Bulgarian car valeter says £45, then he takes one look inside my car, gives a low whistle and says “I am sorry, £65”. I nod and slink off to a nearby chair, chastised.
The sugar from the Jelly Tots bags is bad enough. The sandwich crumbs are contemptible and I have no idea what he will say when he finds the tiny prawn that slipped down the left side of the driver’s seat when it staged an escape from a salad about a fortnight ago. No matter how hard I try (admittedly, not that hard), I cannot get the little blighter.
Despite the apparent lawlessness in my car, there are rules to my car snacks, based around the fact I drive an automatic car - a liberated left hand, then dinner and dessert - generally confined by the rather limited choice on offer in petrol stations. The larger service stations give the illusion of more options, whilst only offering more of the same. I can buy Percy pig tails instead of Percy Pig heads but it is not as enjoyable as biting the ears off for some reason I cannot quite identify which I prefer to think of as textural, rather than anything darker.
Dinner is a sandwich. I have tried them all but now stick to egg mayonnaise or cheese and onion. Why reach for the stars in an Esso? The disappointment is inevitable but yet for many years I still hoped, only to be crushed time and time again by the stark reality of the weirdly viscous prawn mayo or the BLT where all the bacon, lettuce and tomato has gone to die. Or any sort of tortilla wrap emptying its contents onto my lap on the first bite. Salvation appeared in the form of a grab bag of Walkers crisps - ready salted or cheese and onion inserted in smart overlaps between the slices of bread. Please do not attempt this whilst driving, especially on the motorway.
Whilst a little more challenging to eat one-handed, and yes, a crisp or two may well slide onto my lap and then down between the driver’s seat and the door, my sandwich has now been elevated from ‘shit’ to ’perfectly acceptable to fill a gap’. A marked improvement. Salads are only allowed when stationery for obvious reasons. Spillage still occurs, hence the rogue prawn. Sushi rolls are manageable if you apply soy sauce before starting the engine but expect rice grains on your lap and in the footwell, or scattered across your t-shirt. I never said it was pretty.
Dessert is sweets and my choices have a definite retro quality about them. Fruit gums, Jelly Tots, Wine Gums, Tooty Frooties (these are hard to source these days) and Fruit Pastilles. All multicoloured, chewy and loaded with sugar. Percy Pigs are stolen from my boyfriend. I drive along eating these sweets wondering what on earth I would do if I started to choke on one. Imagining myself swerving onto the hard shoulder, staggering out of the car and trying to perform Heimlich on myself against a railing, passes a few minutes on a long journey although I admit is a little catastrophic of me.
Fruit gums are not as challengingly chewy as they used to be. Rowntrees have adjusted the recipe to make them vegan. The customer reviews on their website are full of righteous indignation and barely concealed outrage at vegans, from “I would rather be hooked up to a ventilator with liquified original fruit gums being injected into my veins than live like this” and “found an old packet in my cupboard see the difference but it’s in the taste where the true disappointment is!” to the heartbreaking “You have ruined the pleasure of a lifetime!!”
There was also a bit of whining as to why Rowntrees STILL will not listen to their customers (or more specifically, one customer) and provide tubes of single flavour fruit gums. Clearly this individual does not share.
I can always find someone to have the reds and blacks. I am not sure I have been taking my dedication to the Rowntrees canon seriously enough. Maybe I just value my fillings more these days, the old version used to get well and truly lodged in the back molars. £800 for a half crown replacement these days. The guy with the manky old packet in the back of his cupboard makes me feel better about the state of my car though.
The car valeter walks up to me, my keys swinging from his right hand. He shows me proudly around my gleaming car. I take this as pride in his work, rather than a direct criticism of my sluttishness. He tells me what a nice colour my car is as though he was unable to see the colour when I brought it in. It’s burnt orange. I peer inside, ooh and ah enthusiastically. It does indeed look beautiful, like the day I drove it off the forecourt, before it journeyed with me into the murky realms of car snacking. He presses an old water bottle into my hand, filled with a bright pink fluid.
“Take this” he says, earnestly. “Put it in a spray bottle. Spray your mats once a week with it. Please.”
It must have been that prawn. I thank him profusely and in that moment, I genuinely believe that it is something I will do.
Helen Collier (she/her) is a pastry chef and writer living in East London.
Jaden Tsan (she/her) is a recent design grad based in Canada and is passionate about editorial design and illustration. Her current favourite snack is Meiji Apollo chocolates.