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HomeSector FocusWhy catching Covid-19 was no laughing matter for flooring’s Mr Funny

Why catching Covid-19 was no laughing matter for flooring’s Mr Funny

Carpet-fitter Ian James, a familiar face at The Flooring Show and the closest thing the industry has to a stand-up comedian, narrowly survived a very unfunny experience with Covid-19.

‘I couldn’t tell you what she asked me,’ says Ian, trying to recall the conversation. ‘All I know is I didn’t say more than three words as I was gasping for breath. She said: ‘There’s an ambulance coming!’, then asked me to hand the phone back to Justine. I don’t get worried about much to be honest but it had quickly become real that I had the dreaded virus and that it wasn’t looking good because I’d never felt that way. I felt completely helpless.’

We’ve all heard the horror stories about how viciously Covid-19 attacks the body, particularly before vaccines became available. Back in late 2019 and early 2020, it swept across Europe and the UK with frightening speed and often lethal consequences. The images from Italy, where the virus struck with ferocity, shocked the world. Hospitals were full to overflowing with the sick and the dying; ventilators quickly became the most valuable pieces of equipment on Earth; and soon we were hearing about people we knew who’d contracted the virus. Not everybody who got it was in danger, particularly if you were young. But for some people it was the kiss of death. It’s no exaggeration to say Ian James was very nearly one of those unfortunates.

He’d tested positive soon after Christmas 2020, just as cases were rocketing to unprecedented levels. He isn’t entirely sure when and where he contracted it because ‘I was sanitising on jobs and doing everything sensibly as far as health and safety was concerned’, but he suspects it may have been when he visited a friend’s house for coffee on 18 December. ‘We were socially distanced and, as far as we knew, both negative, but on Boxing Day my friend texted me to say he’d tested positive after feeling ill on 19 December. I was due to have my kids around for Boxing Day evening and felt perfectly fine but decided to postpone it as a precaution, particularly because my eldest daughter, Chloe, is a nurse.’

Ian woke up the next morning feeling as though he’d been hit by a bus. ‘Just like that, I couldn’t get out of bed. I’d never felt anything like it. My body ached all over, it hurt to open my eyes. It was like a really awful hangover. I had hot sweats one moment and cold sweats the next. I was lethargic, and kept drinking water and taking tablets in the hope that it would pass.’

But the virus wasn’t going anywhere. After getting tested at the nearest test facility, he was messaged that he was positive, so he isolated in his upstairs room, where he remained for the rest of the week. Justine, however, was worried his condition seemed to be worsening rather than improving, which led to her calling 911.

A first-response paramedic had just finished his shift when he heard the call-out regarding Ian on the radio. Because he was only five minutes from Ian’s house, he told the operators he’d attend. When he arrived at Ian’s house, he placed him face-down on the floor which is less restrictive for the lungs than lying face-up. ‘I’m just going to make you more comfortable because your breathing isn’t good,’ said the paramedic.

Ian has no recollection of how long he lay like that, describing the time until the ambulance arrived as ‘a blur. I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and I know how that feels because I was once thrown off a motorbike at 90 miles an hour and woke up in a Spanish hospital after losing three days of my life’.

With the ambulance reversed up the driveway, Ian was moved into it. Around him masked and gloved-up paramedics worked quickly to ensure he was in a position to breathe. So stringent were the precautions that a facemask was placed over Ian’s oxygen mask. ‘One thing I remember as I lay in the back was Justine saying goodbye.’

Justine later told Ian she was convinced she wouldn’t see him again. Her dilemma could so easily have been the same one faced by so many people all over the country at that time who, owing to lockdown restrictions, couldn’t be with their loved ones during their last days and hours and in some cases couldn’t even attend the funeral.

After that, Ian didn’t register anything until the ambulance arrived at the hospital, at which point the doors opened at the back and a paramedic said: ‘You’re going straight in – you’re not waiting in a queue.’

Ian was wheeled to the ‘red zone’, specifically for Covid-19 patients, then onto a ward with two other patients. ‘I don’t remember answering questions. I couldn’t even have told you what time of day or night it was. All I hazily recall is someone asking: ‘Why didn’t you come in earlier?’.

That night, still lying face-down to facilitate his breathing, he was aware that the person lying on the bed next to him – one of his two wardmates – was in real trouble. With machines connected to him and his neighbour constantly bleeping, Ian heard ‘a kerfuffle’ before a doctor said: ‘We’ve done all we can’. It was quite traumatic, and it only hit me afterwards.’

In fact, for many nights after he was discharged from hospital, Ian couldn’t sleep because he kept hearing the bleeping.

One thing that stood out for Ian at the time was how many members of staff were being drafted in from just about anywhere else because the NHS desperately needed extra staff. It wouldn’t be true to say Ian was completely alone in hospital because although he couldn’t receive visitors, his daughter Chloe happened to work for the NHS on the floor below his. However, because she worked in a non-Covid-19 ward, she wasn’t permitted to ‘come through the double doors’, as Ian puts it, to see her dad. And she wasn’t going to tolerate any soft-soaping.

‘Don’t BS me about my dad’s condition,’ she told the doctors who were dealing with him. ‘I know what’s what. I want the whole truth.’

II: Chance encounters
HE road that led to Ian’s career in flooring (and ultimately to his hospitalisation for Covid-19) is littered with chance encounters. Unlike many small flooring businesses, his wasn’t a family concern where (typically) the founding father leaves it to his children. Instead, Ian’s flooring story started with a chance encounter at a family funeral. But before we get there, I ask Ian about his childhood.
‘It won’t surprise you to hear I was born at a very early age,’ he says, his tongue – as ever – firmly in his cheek. ‘My birthplace was Oxford on 9 March 1967, which makes me about 21.’

He’s the middle brother of three; both siblings have worked for him in the past – not always with the desired results. ‘My younger brother had to stop owing to his knees. My elder brother was my best man at my wedding. In his speech he said he didn’t like mixing business with pleasure, so I fired him.’

Ian mischievously says he had no option. ‘He was just bloody useless – we joke about it to this day.’

Ian’s father worked at a factory at British Leyland for years but he wanted to start his own taxi business so he bought his ex-manager’s car. ‘As an employee you could buy a company car cheaper so he started his own taxi business and both my brothers ended up doing that as well, and still carrying on the business. I used to help them out but I just don’t have the time now.’

The James family was clearly representative of the hardworking folk who form the backbone of this country, but flooring was the last thing on Ian’s mind when he started working at a tender age. ‘I got a job at a little fruit and veg shop in Oxford where my brother was already part-timing. He told them I was 12 when I was actually only 11, but they believed him and I was soon catching a bus to work at the shop before and after school, working until 6pm.’

He continued for years, right up to leaving school, and was sufficiently ensconced at the shop by the time he was 17 that he’d been made responsible for the buy-ins as well as the Saturday staff. He loved it so much that at that point he intended to do it for the rest of his working life.

After his 17th birthday in 1985, he passed his driving test and made his first significant career decision. ‘It was supposedly my day off and I was driving the lorry to market to pick up goods for both shops when it hit me that I was working 60 hours a week, and earning a meagre £59 a week.’
‘I feel like I’m worth £100 a week,’ Ian told his boss.

His boss responded: ‘I can’t afford to pay you that – I have two kids in private school.’

‘Well then I’ll have to work my notice and leave,’ said Ian.

The store manager, Ian’s superior, told him that if it had been up to him he would’ve paid to keep him, which further stiffened Ian’s resolve. Besides, he wanted to buy a car and simply couldn’t afford to on his salary.

On Ian’s last day, his boss called him into his office: ‘OK,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you £100 a week.’

Ian didn’t have a new job to go to but because his boss had made him wait until his last day, his pride got in the way and he fibbed: ‘Sorry, I have a new job to go to.’

Ian and his first boss never fell out. He died several years ago, but Ian still stops for a chinwag with his wife when he occasionally bumps into her.

Jobless, Ian decided he needed to learn a trade but he didn’t know what. He rang a respected businessman in his village who traded in carpets and asked him for a job. But the man demurred. ‘No, Ian. I’ll take you on, train you, then once you’ve found your feet you’ll leave, taking my clients with you. That’s why I don’t take on anyone anymore.’

In one of life’s curious ironies, the businessman ended up, years later, working for Ian.

Around the time he’d unsuccessfully rung for that carpet job, Ian’s family received terrible news: his cousin had been tragically killed by a drunk driver over the festive season. At the funeral he was introduced to several uncles (many weren’t actual relatives), one of whom would set in motion a chain of events that determined Ian’s destiny.

The uncle asked him: ‘What are you going to do with your life now?’

‘I was thinking of carpets,’ said Ian.

‘I happen to know a guy who’s looking for someone to help him with carpet fitting.’

‘I’m his man, then!’ said Ian excitedly.

There was a problem, though: the carpet business was in South Wales. But Ian’s uncle was a multimillionaire who lived in an eight-bedroom house, and he offered Ian a room if he wanted the job. You can imagine the 17-year-old’s delight at this turn in his fortunes, particularly when he realised he had an entire floor of the house to himself. ‘From the first day I loved it. I can even remember my first job – my new boss made me take out every second nail in a length of gripper because he was too tight to buy any. He felt you didn’t need so many nails in gripper. So I had to take them out and put them in a tin so he had spare nails at all times.’

But Ian concedes his boss was ‘a very good teacher’. ‘I was lucky because there were other guys there who did the heavy lifting; during summer we’d knock off at about 1 or 2pm, then head off to water ski on the boss’s speedboat. On Fridays he’d let me go at midday and I’d drive back to Oxford every weekend, then head back to Wales on Sunday evening. I was, in effect, living two lives.’
At 18, Ian started floorlaying and struck out on his own. However it was difficult to get people to take him seriously at that age so he worked as a fitter for a Polish man and another employer who sold 27in carpets made on old Victorian looms.

‘I had no experience of 27in carpet as it was all hand-sewn,’ he says. ‘We had to sew the ends together and staircases had to be fitted from two strips sewn together. I didn’t enjoy it because I saw guys fitting entire houses in a day using foamback carpets while we’d take two days just to complete the stairs and landing. Having said that, the experience was fantastic because I became proficient at sewing and stitching carpet together.’

It’s an art that isn’t seen as much today (although bullnoses are still sewn) but Ian is pleased he cut his teeth there, and that younger fitters still ask him for help with patching jobs. ‘I have a reputation – if you need something sewn together, I can do it.’

III: The bloke in the blue van
N order to keep busy in the early days of his career, Ian subcontracted himself out to various flooring companies during the week, then worked on private jobs at the weekends. It was all going swimmingly when a salesman in one of the shops (which was subsequently taken over by Carpetright), said: ‘If you want to buy carpets from us, we’ll sell them to you at staff price and you can make money from selling it on to your customers.’

Ian liked the idea and was soon making money. He decided to go a step further and supply carpets but he didn’t have a shop, which complicated things, and at 19 was still living with his parents. ‘I wanted to take this job seriously,’ he says.

He asked a wholesaler, the forerunner to STS, for an account and they gave him pattern or sample books which he showed to clients in the evening. ‘I started out calling myself ‘Ian James – carpet fitter’ because that’s what I did. But I quickly discovered you couldn’t get accounts if you didn’t have a business name; if you were a fitter they just didn’t want to know you. I needed to form a company with a more fitting name.’

At the time Ian lived in a street called Hazel Crescent, and having gone to Crescent School, he began to form an idea for a business name. ‘I liked the ring of Crescent Carpets so I launched my company and advertised the fact I supplied carpet and vinyl. Not long afterwards I told the shops I was working for, including Selfridges, that it was unfair for me to continue fitting for them when I was getting my own carpet and my van was branded as Crescent Carpets. I never looked back.’

Ian is proud of the reputation he built, saying if you fit carpets properly, word will spread and business will flow from that. ‘Even after I left the shops, clients who couldn’t always remember my name asked after ‘the bloke with the blue van’.’

In 1988, Ian, aged only 21, moved his business up a gear by renting garages in which to store his stock – his career in flooring had well-and-truly taken off.

He never bought or rented commercial premises, instead basing himself at home, and he’s always worked on the basis that ‘I’d never sell anything I wouldn’t want in my own home’. But, as many floorlayers would agree, success can make you a workaholic. At one point during the ‘80s housing boom, when Ian had five fitters working for him, he continued toiling most nights until 10pm until his partner at the time put her foot down. ‘Something had to give,’ he says.

One fitter Ian employed was an old schoolfriend, a young woman called Rachel. Even now it’s unusual to find female fitters and the appointment made national headlines at the time.

Unfortunately, the day the newspaper sent a crew around to photograph Rachel at work was the day she inadvertently locked herself in a room. ‘We were working in a large office block in the Strand in London,’ recalls Ian. ‘There were a lot of other trades onsite as well, and we were working day and night to get it finished on time.’

The contractors installing the partitions had finished for the day and the doors had been hung so the decorator could lacquer them. However, the door handles hadn’t been fitted, and the contractor’s last words as he left for the day were: ‘Whatever you do, DON’T SHUT THE DOORS.’

‘We had thousands of metres of carpet tiles to fit,’ says Ian, ‘Rachel went into one room and shut the door behind her. It was half an hour before we realised she was locked in.’

Since the team couldn’t touch the doors, they had only three options. Rachel could open a window and walk along the ledge outside (she was on the second floor), which didn’t appeal to her at all; they could call the fire brigade to rescue her; or they could leave her there until the partition contractor came back in the morning.

So they decided to leave her there, sliding carpet tiles under the door so she could carry on fitting them. ‘You’ve got to get your money’s worth when you’re working overnight,’ chuckles Ian.

It sounds worse than it actually was. Rachel was in a huge area with lots of windows. The partition was half-solid, half-window, so she could see the rest of her team having their meal break. Ian did offer to dip a biscuit in his tea and slide it under the door to her, but Rachel’s only response was to call him a few choice names. At 6am the next morning, the partition contractor came and drilled a hole in the door where the handle stem would go and got the door open. He asked Ian why they hadn’t simply taken a partition window out.

‘It hadn’t crossed our minds to do that,’ Ian admitted sheepishly, ‘but in any case I’d have been a bit worried about destroying someone else’s work.’

Rachel worked for Ian for several years. ‘She was a fantastic fitter and great for our business until her knees started troubling her as they do to all fitters eventually.’ His words aren’t mere hyperbole: before her career was cut short, Rachel was a semi-finalist in the fitter of the year competition.

Over the years, Ian has regaled CFJ readers (along with his associates at the National Institute of Carpet Fitters) with tales of unusual jobs and troublesome clients. One DIY enthusiast, for instance, thought he could do things himself on the cheap. Rather than let Ian and his team prepare the floorboards prior to fitting the carpet, the customer decided he was quite capable of fixing a squeaking floorboard himself.

Unfortunately, the first thing he did was put a nail straight through one of the central heating pipes, which sprung a leak and blew the electrics in the house. He proceeded to lift-up the offending floorboards and managed to make a huge hole in the ceiling below it. His DIY efforts ended up costing him a small fortune.

Ian’s well-acquainted with the ‘Since You’ brigade of clients: ‘Since you fitted my carpet, my house alarm doesn’t work,’ complained one. Ian reassured him if his team had nicked a wire somewhere, then he’d sort it out. He called in a house alarm specialist to trace the fault, who reported back to Ian that the system was missing a component and had probably never worked at all.

The customer refused to come clean about trying it on, so Ian suggested he get a second opinion. He never heard from the customer again. And yes, he did pay Ian’s bill in full.

PART IV: Katie
F Ian’s professional life was on an upward trajectory, his personal life would, in the years ahead, become mired in pain. With his now ex-wife, Ian had four children, the second eldest of whom – Katie – was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer at two-and-a-half.

‘It was unheard of in children at the time and she wasn’t expected to live to five,’ says Ian. ‘She actually made it to 14. Over the years she had so many operations and drug trials – she was a fighter. Things initially looked positive because after chemotherapy, the tumour remained dormant for several years. They seemed to have shocked it into doing nothing. But when she was 10, and despite annual check-ups and scans, her backache returned.’

She was taken straight back to hospital for a scan. ‘The doctors said the tumour had returned, that it had mutated into something different, that it was now grade four and that if they operated, she’d be paralysed from the waist down,’ says Ian. ‘The news probably had a worse effect on my wife at the time than myself, but we were both rocked by it.’

Ian had a heart-to-heart with his daughter, outlining the options available.

‘So, I’m going to be going in a wheelchair?’ she said. ‘It could be worse! On the bright side, dad, I won’t have to walk anywhere – I’ve got my own wheels.’

What followed put ‘a huge strain’ on both Ian’s business and his marriage. ‘I would work at FITA in Loughborough, then drive back to Stoke Mandeville, where Katie was at the time. I’d spend the rest of the night with her before I saw the rest of the family.’

To understand the effect on a family of trauma as profound as this, I’m reminded of what happened to the late media mogul, Robert Maxwell and his family after his eldest child, Michael, sustained serious brain injuries in a car crash in Oxford. Michael was left in a coma for years. Each member of the Maxwell family dealt with the pain in their own way; after working until midnight, Maxwell often instructed his chauffeur to take him to his son’s hospital bedside where he tried unsuccessfully to get a reaction – any reaction – from him.

Katie’s 14th birthday came and went, after which her health rapidly deteriorated. Over the last 18 months of her life, she was confined to bed with her mother as primary carer and two nurses helping out. Working every night until midnight, Ian ensured his office door was open so he could see through to Katie’s bedroom to keep an eye on her.

‘Sadly, we always knew she wasn’t going to live a full life but it doesn’t make it any easier when it happens.’

Therapists say there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or sadness, and finally acceptance. And while Ian has clearly travelled the hard road to the last stage, there’s no escaping the fact that it must still be painful to talk about. His recall of events is, typical of the man, remarkably free of self-pity.

He became ‘heavily involved’ in dads’ groups because, he says, ‘there were parents’ groups for those who’d lost children but there was no specific group to support grieving fathers. I’m still involved, more than a decade later. We go on walks and listen to talks. I’ll do what I can to help others – in fact I recently met two fathers whose grief is quite fresh. It was like their world had come to an end. They just needed someone to tell them what it’s going to be like in a year’s time so they can try to manage that process’. He also still visits the children’s hospice where Katie spent weekends.

In the days and weeks after losing his daughter, Ian thought of himself as ‘some sort of alien’. ‘As a dad your one job is to protect your kids, and I felt like I’d failed. I couldn’t process the emotions. Now, I actually feel quite arrogant because I know nothing in life will be as bad as that again.’
The group Ian is referring to is dads.care (www.dads.care.co.uk), which focuses on bereaved fathers in the Thames Valley region (and beyond), and which originated at Helen & Douglas House Children’s Hospice in Oxford.

In hindsight, Ian says he now realises there’s always someone worse off than you – through his support group work he’s met fathers who’ve lost two children. ‘We just feel lucky we had Katie for the time we did; we got 10 years more than we were supposed to, and you have to be thankful for that.’

Few families survive such trauma without being permanently scarred. Katie’s eldest sibling, Chloe, had her own way of dealing with it: she promised her sister she’d join the NHS as a nurse. Which is exactly the job she was doing when her father was wheeled into her hospital with Covid-19 in January 2021.

V: Too much paperwork
HLOE may have wanted her co-workers to tell her the whole truth about her father’s condition, but that must have been scary for her, even if she was an experienced nurse. For starters, Ian’s hospitalisation coincided with what would turn out to be Covid-19’s most vicious assault on the NHS. During mid-to-late January 2021, which was only 21 months ago, more than 1,000 people were dying a day, worse than the daily average during the first and third waves. In fact, a friend of Ian’s was in the same hospital, on another ward, at the same time, but he also fortunately survived.

After four days in the ‘red zone’, Ian was moved to a ward but his battle was far from over. As he later discovered, he was 30 minutes away from being transferred to intensive care as a bed had become available. Doctors decided if his saturation levels didn’t stabilise, he’d be moved there.

It was at this point, while his thought process was ‘murky and misty’, as he puts it, that he remembers thinking: ‘I’ve had enough, I’m not fighting anymore’. This messed with his mind more than anything else because ‘I’ve always been one of these guys who, if I feel ill, just takes a tablet and reassures myself I’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep’.

Ian describes the surreal nature of lying in bed. ‘I didn’t know what was going. I wasn’t sleeping but it was like being in a coma. I heard things happening around me but the only thing I knew for sure was that when they pulled the curtains around it meant they were wheeling someone out who hadn’t made it, and there was far too much of that sadly.’

Fortunately, he was blessed with a caring doctor who, although Australian, had the type of ironic sense of humour most Brits – and particularly floorlayers – would appreciate. ‘You’re not getting out of here unless you change your attitude,’ the doctor said. ‘You need to start eating, drinking, moving, and responding. I can’t have you dying on my watch – there’s far too much paperwork involved.’

Ian’s head was so fuzzy that he doesn’t even know if he rewarded the doctor’s quip with his trademark chuckle. That night, he was turned over onto his back for the first time.

The next morning, his seventh day in hospital, there was finally light. Turning his phone on that day, hundreds of messages came through from friends, relatives, and co-workers who’d been worried sick about his condition. For the first time he responded (he’d sent a message before then but it had apparently been illegible).

‘My word!’ said Ian’s doctor, ‘you’re a different person today!’

‘I believe the doctor’s words the night before had had a subconscious effect on me,’ says Ian. ‘It was the turning point. I made the decision that I had to get out of there. After that, I improved rapidly.’

He remained in hospital for a few more days, steadily eating and drinking more. One day a doctor came in and told the medical staff: ‘Turn his oxygen right down. He’ll either deteriorate or he’ll stay the same. If he stays the same, we don’t need to have him on that level of oxygen.’ Then he turned to Ian and said: ‘You’re going to get out of here.’

Hearing that was another psychological boost for Ian just when he needed it most. ‘If I’m part-cat, I’m getting through my nine lives. There aren’t many left, I can tell you.’

Because he hadn’t been upright for so long, he needed a couple of days’ physiotherapy to get him moving again. ‘I insisted on washing and shaving myself despite the nurses’ objections, and ended up making my way to the bathroom with a nurse holding me up.’

What followed was a new medicine regime including stomach injections and tests and scans to ensure his lungs weren’t scarred, among other things. When the big day finally arrived, Ian was like a greyhound at the gates, eager to get home and back to flooring. He’d signed his discharge paperwork and was sitting on a chair next to his bed.

‘Why am I still here?’ he asked, aware Justine was driving in circles in the hospital car park, waiting to pick him up.

‘We’re waiting for a porter to wheel you out,’ came the answer.

‘Look,’ said Ian, ‘I might not be able to do star-jumps but I can walk. It’s hugely important I’m able to walk out of this hospital.’

‘Fine!’ said the doctor. ‘But if you fall over, you’re coming straight back. Do you want someone to walk with you?’

‘No,’ said Ian. ‘I need to do it on my own.’

Recalling the moment, there’s a catch in his voice. ‘I still get emotional thinking about it,’ he says.
He started walking to the lift and quickly realised he’d never known a destination to be so close and yet so far all at once. His legs felt heavier and heavier with every step. Nonetheless, he got there, then reached the ground floor and walked into the reception. At that point, he noticed one of the nurses who’d picked up his medicines and who was looking for him. ‘I can’t fall over in front of this guy, he’ll drag me straight back upstairs,’ Ian thought.

His desperation to get out of hospital gave him the impetus to soldier on. He made it to the exit where Justine had timed her arrival perfectly, and collapsed into the passenger seat. ‘Drive,’ he told her. ‘Just drive.’

VI: Aftermath
NCE he was safely home, Ian was desperate for a spicy curry. In fact because he’d lost his sense of taste and smell, a known symptom of Covid-19, he wanted the spiciest curry the world had ever produced. And failing that, at least the spiciest dish his local curry house could concoct. ‘As soon I started eating the curry, which looked fantastic, I knew it was hot because my lips were tingling.’
But Ian was hungry for more than curry; he wanted to get back to work as quickly as possible. Too quickly, as it turned out. ‘I thought I could recover my strength in a couple of weeks and wanted to crack on with it.’ Alas, it would be three months before he was fit enough to actively re-join the world of flooring.

‘Recovery involved having to eat three meals a day because I’d lost two stone in about three weeks,’ he explains.

Did beer lose its taste too? ‘I didn’t drink for four months until I got to The Flooring Show at Harrogate where I tasted as many varieties as I could just to ensure everything was normal. And yes it is!’

After his discharge, Ian had an appointment with his GP who runs a clinic. The doctor told him: ‘You probably know more about this virus than we do, that’s how new and confusing it is. In the days and weeks ahead, strange things may happen to you. Make note of them so we can discuss them in six months at your next appointment.’

His GP’s prediction wasn’t far off the mark. Ian’s hair fell out like straw, his energy remained well below its pre-Covid-19 levels, and his inability to concentrate and remember things worried him. ‘I’d be talking to someone and mid-conversation I’d drop a word. My brain would try to find it but it would go, and just like that I’d forgotten what I was talking about. It’s very frustrating but apparently quite common with Long Covid.’ Ian says he also dropped things randomly, a symptom thought to be a result of Covid-19’s effect on the central nervous system.

According to The Royal Society in London, Long Covid was sometimes initially described as being symptoms that lasted for longer than four weeks. At the end of 2020, however, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) took a step towards a better definition. Its guidelines stated Covid-19 itself can last up to four weeks, and persistent symptoms lasting 4-12 weeks were described as ‘ongoing symptomatic Covid-19’. Symptoms that persisted 12 weeks or more were classed as ‘post-Covid-19 syndrome’.

‘Even so, there are still nearly 50 different symptoms associated with Long Covid and some surveys have identified more than 100,’ says the society. ‘Yet the most frequently reported symptoms are fairly non-specific – headaches, fatigue, and breathlessness, for example, are common in many different conditions. Not everyone experiences all the symptoms in the same combinations, and in some cases they appear intermittently. Often the symptoms change over time and appear in different parts of the body. This makes it hard for doctors to ascribe it to a single condition. It’s now apparent Long Covid is far too common to be wholly due to psychosomatic factors.’

Nonetheless, by the end of March 2021, Ian was itching to get back to work. ‘I’m not one for sitting around but I decided that instead of plunging headlong back into my job I’d start slowly. So I set up an appointment with a woman in Gloucester, about 40 minutes’ drive away, who wanted a carpet inspection done – ideal as it wouldn’t be too physical. She’d booked an appointment before Christmas but after Justine told her about me, she agreed to wait until I was out of hospital.’

After the inspection, which entailed taking photos and writing a report, Ian set off home. On the way, he started shaking and, fearing he wasn’t fit to drive, pulled over at a fast food restaurant to buy a sweet coffee. It took him 30 minutes to regain his composure. A few days later he looked at the report he’d written and realised he couldn’t make head-or-tail of it. ‘It was illegible, as if a five-year-old had written it.’

When I interviewed Ian at The Flooring Show in September last year, there was no doubt he was a shadow of his former self; he had a haunted expression as he recalled his experiences. He told me he wanted to believe he was the same bloke who went into hospital in January 2021 but he wasn’t so sure anymore. For starters, he found himself particularly irritated by vaccine refuseniks. ‘Things that wouldn’t bother me before really annoy me now, like people not having the vaccine. I’ve got a real bugbear about that. One of my children had her head filled with all sorts of tales about not being able to conceive if she took the jab. I had to sit her down after I’d been discharged and said: ‘Listen, you saw what Covid-19 did to me in January. You nearly didn’t have a dad. I know you want children later in your life but if you don’t take the jab, you might not reach that point anyway.’

When he presented at The Flooring Show or elsewhere he needed key cards for the first time. ‘I have to remember where the sponsors are, the stand numbers, so I don’t miss anything. And my mind doesn’t tell me I’ve missed stuff until the next morning. With the trophy presentation, I forgot to give the other finalists their trophies. I’m so glad I’m here but I think I’ve got a long road ahead to normality.’ Then he grinned: ‘But people will argue I was never normal in the first place.’

The dead-pan delivery was still there but he wasn’t back to his usual ebullient self. He told me he’d recently cancelled a GP appointment because he had so much work on. ‘My storeroom is full of materials, so I thought I’ve got to get out there. I’m working weekends as well.’

I rang Ian shortly before The Flooring Show this year and found him in a better place, albeit still plagued by some long-term consequences of Covid-19. He and Justine recently had a chat over a bottle of wine about the effect Ian’s illness had had on her and the rest of the family, and for Ian it was a cathartic experience. ‘I had no idea it had been so very hard on her, and we actually got quite emotional about it.’

As a council member of the National Institute of Carpet Fitters (NICF), and having been president between 2012-2016, he has much to offer the industry. He’s up to his ears in work, including a large commercial contract installation for Airbus offices at London Oxford Airport. ‘I’m just back from a family holiday in Florida,’ he says. ‘It was for Justine’s 50th birthday; despite my workload, I was determined to make that happen or I would’ve been minus one crown jewel.’

After everything he’s been through, I doubt that would scare Ian too much. He might even see the funny side.

• Catch Ian James at The Harrogate Flooring Show between 18-20 September where he’ll be head judge and compere at the Fitter of the Year competition.

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