"Sorry guys, but I'm closing the business as of next week"
A silence descended. My wife and I cast anxious glances at each other. The laundry shop owner looked as if she was about to burst into tears.
This was no early April Fool's joke. The laundry shop where we had been regular customers for over seven years had decided to call it a day.
But....but....how can this be? This laundry shop had become an integral part of our Sunday routine. After a leisurely morning at home, my wife and I will start by pushing a trolley around the supermarket. She puts luxury items in the shopping cart (I fish them out, look at the price label and put them back on the shelf) Then we argue over where to have lunch (she fancies Japanese. I'm easy. I'll go anywhere - as long as it's not Japanese) Then finally we'll drive to the laundry shop with our huge black bin-liner of dirty washing. And waiting for us - with an unmistakable waft of Summer freshness - will be a lovely pile of freshly washed and ironed clothing.
The owner went on to say that her female assistant, who had been part of the business since it opened, had gone back home to the north of Thailand for a family visit and done that all-too-familiar disappearing act. This time, she wasn't coming back.
"Can you not find a new member of staff?" I enquired.
I knew it was a ridiculous question. We were talking about the girl who washed the clothes, ironed the clothes, arranged them all into neat piles and wrapped them carefully in plastic covers. She was nearly always the ‘front of house' person as well - the cheerful face who dealt with the customers, took their money, entered various details into a computer and wrestled with the printer.
She WAS the business. But now she was gone.
"People who are willing to work as hard as she did are impossible to find nowadays", the owner said, "especially for a laundry shop. So I've got no choice but to close up and focus on being a full-time Mom to my daughter. I'm really sorry about this. Not only to you but to all the loyal customers I've built up over the years"
I could do little except shake my head in bewilderment. Is the writing on the wall for the Thai laundry business? Is it going to become another one of those essential services consigned to the history books? Because as the old saying goes - ‘you just can't get the staff'
I think there are three main reasons why a customer gets cheesed off with a particular laundry shop and decides to take their grubby jeans and sweaty t-shirts elsewhere.
Firstly, the quality of the washing and ironing. No one wants to pick up clothes that are badly pressed or see stubborn coffee stains that the shop hasn't managed to get out.
Secondly, there are sometimes occasions when a laundry shop ‘loses' items. Stuff goes missing and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Your favourite pair of jeans are nowhere to be seen. Are you sure you put them in the bag? Good luck with that because it's your word against the laundry's - and there's usually only one winner.
Finally, and this is the main reason I have changed laundry shops several times in the past - your clothes are never ready when you go to collect them. Now that's frustrating!
Ups and downs
Not for a moment am I going to say our regular laundry shop had a flawless record in these three departments. The quality of the ironing was always ‘acceptable' (and that's mainly why we stuck with them for so long) but it's fair to say they always struggled with dark-coloured polo shirts.
They lost items as well. Funnily enough, my favourite pair of jeans ended up in someone else's wardrobe and at least two or three t-shirts were mislaid over the years. Oh, and let's not forget a short-sleeved blue cotton shirt that I loved wearing. The owner held it up one Sunday between a thumb and forefinger and it looked as if it had been pecked to death by crows. "We had a problem with the washing machine" she said, accompanied of course by one of those famous Thai smiles. "How much do we owe you?"
The money didn't matter of course because the shirt could never be replaced. And I bloody loved that shirt!
And yes, there was a time or two when our laundry wasn't ready. Usually when we were going on holiday the following day and needed it most.
However, you put up with these mistakes. You tolerate the odd lost t-shirt and the inconvenience of having to return the following day because the alternative is too terrifying to contemplate. Oh, the very thought of having to find another laundry woman and having to start from scratch, building up a relationship and all that trust.
That's why the relationship with your regular laundry woman is so special. OK, you might refer to her as ‘that dozy cow' whenever her back is turned but she's the woman who makes sure you stroll confidently into the classroom or office with immaculate creases and a blaze of brilliant whiteness that is the envy of your colleagues.
You never truly appreciate these people until they're gone.