An early morning mouth can be a can of worms

'Having another person's dead tongue waggling inside you runs up against at least a dozen ontological taboos'
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The Independent Online

Things that wake you up in a muck sweat at 5am, number 32: Wondering if you've had a tongue transplant

Things that wake you up in a muck sweat at 5am, number 32: Wondering if you've had a tongue transplant

You know the feeling. It is 4.22am. You last woke up 30 minutes ago, drenched in sweat, because of either a) an alarming medical condition or b) an unseasonably heavy duvet in the hot night. You flung the duvet, with a terrible oath, onto the floor, grunted at the cooling breeze from the open window, turned over on your side - and have now awakened, freezing and naked and worrying about something, at 4.22am. Lines from a Fleur Adcock poem drift into your head, a poem about the author lying in bed thinking, "There are worse things than not being able to sleep," - and then, "It is 5am. All the worse things come stalking in/ and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse."

You realise your tongue, at least the front section, has gone all peculiar. It appears to be coarsened, hardened into scales like the outer skin of a crocodile. It clacks against your teeth, making a horrible noise, like castanets in an unsuccessful Sam Peckinpah movie ( Bring Me the Tongue of Alfredo Garcia). It rasps against your upper lip like sandpaper or an industrial file, the kind they send to Belmarsh lifers inside a Victoria sponge. "Wha' the hehr," you try to say, but the words don't come out right, "hah they duh to mah tuggghh?"

Into your head, unbidden, there comes the thought of the unnamed 42-year-old Austrian who has had his tongue removed by surgeons and a new one, from a dead donor, attached to the stump. Happy to report, the patient is apparently likely to make a complete recovery. Viennese doctors "hope he will be able to talk and eat normally" although "he is unlikely to regain his full sense of taste". Befogged with sleep and bad-tongue misery, you lie there and think...

What a revolting idea, having somebody else's tongue in your month. But then, ever since you became a dedicated snogger at 15, it's hardly been a problem. Yet having another person's dead tongue waggling inside you runs up against a dozen ontological taboos, because the tongue is the gateway, not just to bliss, but to individuality. What you say, what you sound like, how you taste things, how you eat and talk and lick and swallow and kiss and express abuse - and play the flute, goddammit - they're all ferociously private and fundamentally lingual activities. What if the new tongue just went all wrong?

1) What if the donor were a devotee of crazily-spiced food, with a preference for molten habañero chillies? What if the new tongue refused to register anything at all on its taste buds at breakfast, lunch or dinner, except lamb vindaloo?

2) You think of the horror film The Beast with Five Fingers, about the amputated hand of a concert pianist which hunts down its assailant. What if the new tongue were similarly bent on revenge, and sought to embarrass its new owner by breaking into "When I'm Sixty Four" in public, or trying to choke him to death in The Ivy in the middle of the "Bang Bang Chicken"?

3) Yes I know the vocal cords are found in the throat, but what is to stop the really determined lingual organ from formulating its own language, independently of its new owner? So, while the patient explains to his wife why he only got back from the Viennese Staatsoper at 2am ("A bunch of zer lads were drinking Beerenauslese in zer opera bar, and I did not realise the time..."), his new tongue could betray him with the truth ("We went to visit Fraulein Helga at Die Boomtzen Klub, and I did not realise the time...").

I'm a firm believer in cellular memory, that quasi-psychological thing that makes amputees feel the presence of their chopped-off limb. I think a tongue probably carries a similar memory of its former owner, with all his or her likings for prawn dishes, Jacques Brel songs, Tyrolean yodelling, Stella Artois and saying "For my sins...", or "Gosh", every few minutes.

If it were I who'd been given the new tongue, I'd probably be lying here, much as I'm doing now, worrying about my new-found interest in menthol cigarettes and wondering if it was my idea or the tongue's first owner. And thinking, Jesus, how long has this guy been knocking back three bottles of wine and 40 fags in an evening and leaving his tongue (but not, obviously, mine) in this state?

Miles Kington is away

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