Under Whitrod’s supervision, an MI5 officer bored holes through from the Dohertys’ flat into the ceiling of Nosov’s flat around the central light fitting and installed a microphone. Wires ran from that to a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the living room of the Dohertys’ flat.
When Whitrod peered through the hole in the floor to check the result, he noticed that not only was the microphone clearly visible from the room below but that they had dropped plaster on the floor. He sped downstairs and persuaded the caretaker to let him into Nosov’s flat to clean it up.
Joan’s job was still to listen and transcribe, but now she was listening through large headphones to live conversations in the room directly below, rather than to phone conversations.
Dudley was still away working long hours, but at least Joan was home when he returned. Although she was not usually alone. Typically a director was also in the room, listening in to conversations on a separate set of headphones.
ASIO recruited Bill Marshall, a Belarusian emigre, to translate the tapes of Nosov’s conversations when they were in Russian. Joan remembers that Marshall would arrive at the apartment at 10pm, and she could ask him questions about any foreign words she had heard and discuss any suspicions she had about the conversations she had transcribed.
With Marshall’s help, she found she had a talent for picking up foreign languages. Occasionally she had to transcribe a whole conversation in Russian, Polish or Serbian, and she was surprised at how much she could understand. Joan’s father, Harry Ridgway, had been a fine linguist, reputed to speak seven languages. Later on, Joan’s youngest daughter Amanda discovered that she had inherited the gift for languages too. She could understand the uncomplimentary things her mother-in-law said about her in Greek, thinking she would not understand.
Despite the crowded conditions in their new home, the Dohertys had enough time together for Joan to fall pregnant. Mark Doherty was born in the apartment at Kaindi in 1951, and this placid baby became an unwitting player in ASIO’s first covert operation.
Joan continued with the listening work where possible, letting Mark sleep in the room furthest from the living room, but she was supported by a male ASIO operative. If she needed to take Mark out for a walk or go shopping, ASIO had the job covered.
When she went out with Mark, Dudley would often suggest she make the acquaintance of people who lived in the neighbourhood so she could find out who they were. This was Joan’s introduction to the principle that anyone at all could be a “person of interest” and that it was always worth meeting people and observing them. In the process, she also made some friends – in particular, she enjoyed the company of a couple called Patsy and James who lived in the same building. James liked to dress up in women’s clothing and go out at night; perhaps he asked the elegant Joan for help with planning his outfits.
It was exciting work, but it was also frustrating, because Joan only heard scraps of information that didn’t tell her the whole story. She remembers transcribing many of Nosov’s conversations with unionists, especially with members of the Building Workers’ Industrial Union. She heard that some union leaders believed unions had a dual purpose – not only to improve pay and conditions for workers but to educate them in Moscow-style radical politics.
One of the regular visitors to the Dohertys’ flat was a colourful ASIO informer called Dr Michael Bialoguski, a medical practitioner and violinist who had escaped from the Soviet Union in 1941 and come to Australia using forged papers.
Later on, he would play a significant role in the Petrov Affair, helping to confirm ASIO’s suspicions that Soviet embassy staff Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov were spies for the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service.
At this stage, however, he was just another informer, getting £5 a week from ASIO for information about Russian immigrants, while also running an abortion clinic. Joan disliked Bialoguski intensely; she never trusted him and called him “a two-timer”. She was entitled to her own views as long as she only recorded the facts.
One day Nosov came up to the flat and banged on the door. Joan opened it but refused to let him in. “My baby is sleeping,” she said, holding firmly on to the door he was pushing. “You are spying on me. I know,” he shouted at her. “Nonsense,” she said. “You are imagining things.”
Nosov called the owner of the building, who Joan remembers as a wealthy man from Papua New Guinea. “Ah, you’re just imagining things,” he soothed Nosov. “It’s just a little family.”
Eventually, Nosov went away and they continued their work.
Sue-Ellen was born in 1953, 15 months after Mark. She was a live wire from the beginning, who didn’t waste much time on sleeping, and Joan decided she couldn’t look after two children and ASIO. She resigned from her ASIO duties and dropped off the payroll. “After that, I only worked for ASIO 19 hours a day,” she later joked, poker-faced.
It wasn’t that much of a joke. Resignation simply meant that Joan took her orders from Dudley instead of from another supervisor.
Dudley quickly worked out that a woman with young children was a perfect cover for a spy. In particular, he used Joan and the children as often as possible to sit in public places and listen to conversations. From 1953 to 1970 Joan continued to work for ASIO, without pay.
She may have made ironic remarks about her situation, but she never seriously questioned her patriotic duty. She couldn’t be certain whether ASIO officially sanctioned her work or whether she was just helping Dudley on the quiet – it wasn’t a need-to-know issue.
This is an edited extract from With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan, Allen & Unwin, $29.99, available February 2.
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