The car screeched to a halt in the forecourt of the Surrey petrol station where 16-year-old Albert Jack was manning the pumps. A white-faced driver leapt out and launched into an account of how he had just picked up a girl hitch-hiker - and suddenly she had managed to disappear from the moving car! Now it was the turn of young Albert to turn pale. "Exactly ten years ago a girl hitch-hiker was run over on this stretch of road," he gasped, "and every anniversary her ghost re-appears and asks for a lift!"
No, there is not a word of truth in that friend-of-a-friend story, the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker which does the rounds in slightly different variations. It is true, though, that Albert Jack had his first job as a petrol pumper in Chobham, Surrey. Now 42, he compiles bestselling collections of bizarre information (Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep is out now in paperback). He includes the phantom hitch-hiker yarn in his new hardback, That's B*ll*cks! (£12.99, Penguin).
Albert Jack (his nom-de-plume - his real name is Graham Willmott) left school without any qualifications and inherited the petrol attendant job from a friend who was going to college. "This was in 1980, before automated petrol pumps had reached us. There was no self-service; some people didn't even get out of their car." He liked to have three pumps on the go at once, inserting one nozzle and running to the next car - preferably without the first driving off while plugged in. "I wanted to be the best petrol pump operator."
What did he get out of it, apart from £28 a week (a bit more when he took cash for ten pounds-worth of petrol but rang up only £9)? "Confidence and the interaction with adults on a social basis. As a teenager, you only encountered parents and teachers. I remember talking to a businessman and seeing him shattered when I told him John Lennon was dead." He thinks the parents of another music star might have been customers: a Mr and Mrs Gabriel certainly had an account at the garage and Peter could have been their son.
After a year, he faced the prospect of a second winter pumping petrol. "I left because it was bloody cold - too cold to cycle five miles, freeze your tits off on the forecourt and cycle back in the dark."
He knew he had to get himself into gear. He had left school without any qualifications and was putting fuel into the cars of people who were often less intelligent than him. "I had to find a path from fuelling a car, to sitting in a car." At the time, that prospect may have seemed about as unlikely as a tale of a ghostly hitcher.